Shifting focus

BCAF looks to take break from arts festival to concentrate on Mishler

Mirror file photo by Gary M. Baranec Visitors enjoy the Blair County Arts Festival on the grounds of Penn State Altoona last year. The Blair County Arts Foundation is taking a “step back” from the festival next year. The festival will go on as scheduled this year — May 18-19 — but will not be held in 2020.

A retirement announcement by a longtime Blair County Arts Festival organizer/Blair County Arts Foundation employee has prompted the foundation’s board of directors to “take a step back” from the 52-year creative and performance arts celebration and refocus efforts on increasing the Mishler Theatre’s use.

Both Jonathan O’Harrow, Blair County Arts Foundation president, and Kate Shaffer, executive director, emphasized that this year’s festival isn’t expected to be the last. Instead, the festival will take a year off in 2020 to allow for an organizational transition and to refocus on filling the seats in the Mishler Theatre.

For nearly half of the festival’s 52 years, Karen Volpe, 67, of Altoona has spearheaded the festival — first as a seven-month subcontractor. Eventually, she was hired full time and added theater responsibilities such as scheduling shows, drawing up leases and as a liaison with tenants. She plans to retire May 31.

The arts foundation has spent years and nearly $3 million in grant and donated funds to refurbish, restore and modernize the historic theater. When it opened in 1906, the Mishler Theatre had the distinction of being the first structure solely devoted to theatrical pursuits in the nation. At that time, most theaters occupied second floors in commercial buildings. In its early days, George Burns, Sara Bernhardt, Lillian Russell and Helen Hayes graced the Mishler’s stage.

In 1965, the Blair County Arts Foundation, together with Altoona Community Theatre, raised $47,500 to purchase the Mishler Theatre from the Notopolous family, in order to prevent its demolition.

“At one time, because it didn’t have air conditioning, the Mishler opened for eight or nine months a year,” O’Harrow explained. “When the air conditioning was installed, it increased its availability to 12 months.”

So, the board advertised for the new, full-time position of theater manager and received 60 applicants. The board narrowed the field to four candidates who were interviewed, Shaffer said.

“And we are thrilled that we reached a unanimous decision. We will welcome the new theatre manager on June 1,” Shaffer said, but declined to name the person until a later date.

“The Mishler has been experiencing rapid growth and has reached a point in its evolution that really requires a full-time theatre manager,” Shaffer said. “Since the Mishler is the BCAF’s primary mission, the board voted to move in that direction so that all of our resources could be utilized in restoring, maintaining and promoting the theater.”

Both Shaffer and O’Harrow emphasized the arts festival to be held

May 18 and 19 at Penn State Altoona remains a strong event and, Shaffer said, “has absolutely nothing to do with the arts festival itself. The event remains a vibrant and important part of life in our community; an annual celebration of the arts that folks eagerly anticipate.”

While the duration of the hiatus is flexible, O’Harrow said the board’s intention is to bring it back.

“Once the new theatre manager has been in place for a year and we have seen continued growth in rentals and income, the intent is to seek a person who would serve in a contracted services capacity for seven months as the arts festival coordinator,” Shaffer said, “much in the same way that Karen Volpe began her career with the BCAF.”

In addition to Volpe, 15 members of the festival committee work all year on the event and are joined on the festival weekend by 150 to 200 volunteers. About 10,000 people gather on the campus of Penn State Altoona to watch ballet performances, listen to various types of music, browse art exhibits and shop for unique, hand-crafted treasures.

The Blair County Arts Festival is sponsored in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. BCAF is a member of Explore Altoona.

Staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.