By Molly Gilmore





Two months ago, the Olympia Armory underwent a creative transformation: The 1939 Art Deco building was illuminated with colored lights. Now, the armory is poised for a much bigger transformation — into an arts center, something that the City of Olympia and many in the community have been working toward for 30 years.

The state’s 2021 budget calls for the building, which has been used by the Washington National Guard, to be transferred to the city at no cost by May 30, 2023, for use as a center for the arts that will educate, build community and promote economic development.

“This is the right thing at the right time,” said Stacey Waterman-Hoey, former director of Arbutus Folk School and a longtime proponent of a community arts center in Olympia. “That building has a lot of promise, and the city is really good at owning and managing buildings — like the Washington Center and the Hands On Children’s Museum.”



Artists, leaders of arts organizations and those working in the arts are thrilled (that’s the actual word more than one person used) about the news, imagining what the center, also being called a creative campus, could mean to them and to the community. “Our phones and emails are ringing off hook with excitement and enthusiasm,” said Paul Simmons, director of Olympia’s Parks, Arts & Recreation Department. “It’s exciting to feel that from the community.”

The next step is to shape three decades of dreams, visions and studies into a plan to turn the 41,160-square-foot building and 9,700-square-foot outbuilding into a space for creativity, collaboration and connection. The city wants to emphasize equity, inclusion and access to the space, but there’s also a need to generate income to cover the costs of managing and maintaining the property. “The armory offers almost limitless opportunities to host and facilitate different types of activities,” Simmons said. “The question is: How can we maximize the benefit to the community?”

City officials are hiring a consultant to spend the next year developing the plan, and they hope that everyone in the community will speak up and share ideas at Engage Olympia. “There could be ideas out there that we’ve not thought about at all,” said Stephanie Johnson of Olympia’s Parks, Arts & Recreation Department. “That’s why it’s really important for people to participate. We want to hear all voices.”

“I would love to see a space which is flexible and adaptable for all disciplines, a space that reflects all our cultures and peoples. a space that is not afraid to allow bold statements and Is respectful and mindful of marginalized groups,” said Lynette Charters, a painter who hosts a pop-up gallery in her own living room. She is among the artists hoping that the center will include a gallery to showcase Olympia’s thriving visual arts scene.



Dave Sederberg of Pacific Stage, who illuminated the armory in crayon box of colors on March 23, is imagining an Olympia Art Museum, along with a space that will support underfunded arts and cultural organizations, particularly those that are volunteer run, No one paid him to light the armory, he said. He was simply inspired to show the building in — literally — “a new light.”

“The collaboration opportunities that come with proximity would open up new creative possibilities for the Olympia arts community,” said Greg Allison, artistic director of Students Orchestras of Greater Olympia (SOGO). “Great things would happen with shared work and presentation spaces. From a practical perspective, SOGO and other groups would greatly benefit from having a consistently available rehearsal space.”

“The collaboration opportunities that come with proximity would open up new creative possibilities for the Olympia arts community,” said Greg Allison, artistic director of Students Orchestras of Greater Olympia (SOGO). “Great things would happen with shared work and presentation spaces. From a practical perspective, SOGO and other groups would greatly benefit from having a consistently available rehearsal space.”

Both Jennifer Hermann of the Olympia Symphony Orchestra and Helen Harvester of Harlequin Productions would like to see space for both rehearsals and performances in the arts center. Such space is desperately needed, Hermann said. “We could envision Harlequin using the space for rehearsals, second stage productions, cabaret-style performances, etc.,” Harvester said. “it just depends on how the functionality of the space shakes out.”

Bobby Williams of The Bridge Music Project, a nonprofit that empowers youths through songwriting workshops and performance opportunities, is  thinking about rehearsal space for his program, too, along with a music venue and perhaps a recording studio. “We at the Bridge are thrilled about the Armory and think it will be a big boost to Olympia’s arts community,” he said. “The Bridge Music Project is looking forward to being involved in the process as this space develops.”

It’s too early to say exactly when the armory’s transformation will be complete, Simmons said. It’s possible that the city could take possession of the building in the next year, but any renovation  couldn’t begin until the consultant finishes the plan next summer. “Once the city takes ownership, one of the things we’ll be doing is evaluating what the short-term opportunities are, the ways the building could be used until we redevelop,” he said.