Artists Test-Driving Armory

by Molly Gilmore

It will be years till the Olympia Armory’s transformation into a center for the arts is complete, but during July, the former military campus is home to performances, workshops, a pop-up museum and a festival. The city is describing the events, dubbed Arts Interventions and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as a way to test-drive the space.

The artists behind the Thurston County Museum of Fine Arts transformed the Armory outbuilding into a gallery space where art is on view through July 15. Photo by David Hoekje.

“We’re testing out the building — learning about how the acoustics work and how important sinks are for workshops,” said Angel Nava of the city’s Parks, Arts and Recreation Department. “The idea is that the interventions can inform the facility design phase. It’s typical to work with architects and engineers first and invite the community later. With this project, we’re intentionally reversing that order.

“It’s just amazing that our community showed up in such a beautiful and powerful way to imagine what the space can be,” she added. That’s not true just of the artists and organizations — including the Olympia Symphony Orchestra, The Bridge Music Project and Capital City Pride — who are using the space but also of those who’ve been showing up to see, listen and participate.

“We had about 500 people come through” on opening day, said Kirsten Miller, one of the organizers of the Thurston County Museum of Fine Arts, a pop-up art exhibition open through July 15 in the Armory’s outbuilding, a former garage. Miller, Frederick Dobler and their team, who created similar exhibitions in vacant buildings during the city’s Arts Walk, hung art from the rafters and created moveable walls to hang art by both emerging s and well-known artists.

The artists behind the Thurston County Museum of Fine Arts transformed the Armory outbuilding into a gallery space where art is on view through July 15. Photo by David Hoekje.

The team envisions continuing to set up temporary exhibitions in different spaces around town, Dobler said, but part of the goal is to spark the community’s interest in a permanent noncommercial space to show art, a space that would be open to a wide range of artists. “The museum is not about artists creating work to sell,” Miller said. “It’s about people being able to enjoy art and experience a community space where everyone can be involved without having to pay money or buy anything.”

The Olympia Symphony Orchestra — which used the space July 9 for Come as You Are, a casual concert at which audience members were welcome to get up close to the musicians, walk around as they played and even play along — found that the drill hall was a surprisingly satisfying spot for the novel experience.

“It was amazing,” said Jennifer Hermann, the orchestra’s executive director. “Part of my motivation for doing this project was as an experiment. We didn’t know what a large acoustic ensemble would sound like in that room till we got there.” About 75 people showed up to listen, she said, and several, from children to elders, played along.

The Olympia Symphony Orchestra played a casual concert in the Armory’s drill hall to test the acoustics and create space for people to not only listen and watch but also bring instruments and join. Photos courtesy of the Olympia Symphony Orchestra.

Sound did echo off the walls, Hermann said, but rather than being overly loud, the effect was pleasant. The orchestra could use the space as it is for future informal experiences, she said, and once the Armory is transformed into a creative campus, she hopes that the orchestra will have rehearsal and office space there.

On July 1 and 2, the drill hall served as a community art space. Artist Jennifer Kuhns held drop-in sessions at which people were invited to create mosaic butterflies to be included in a mural she is creating on the back of Lloyd’s Automotive downtown.

“People are so excited for the art interventions, to be engaged in creative projects as a community and to see this wonderful space being used and developed,” Kuhns said. About 100 people dropped in during her workshops, and the result was 85 butterflies, each unique.

Participants at Jennifer Kuhn’s workshop at the Armory created mosaic butterflies that will become part of Metamorphosis, a mural on the back of Lloyd’s Automotive in downtown Olympia. Those at the workshop chose colors and patterns to fill in Kuhn’s templates.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Kuhns

“It’s an amazing space,” she said. “It is obviously in need of some major renovation to make it into an art center, as planned, but it’s such a beautiful building with great character, and the lower rooms are full of potential. I love all of the giant columns that widen at the top, and there are so many concrete walls just begging for mosaic murals. That’s my perception, anyway.”

Still to come are luminary workshops with volunteers from the Procession of the Species and the Luminary Procession, community art experiences with felt artist Janice Arnold, a still-to-be-announced art activation by The Bridge Arts Leadership Collective and a festival organized by Capital City Pride.

“I feel like these projects are going to set a new precedent for arts in Olympia, not just at the Armory but in our community,” Nava said. “I don’t think we’ll understand what those ripples are until we look back maybe a year from now.”

Armory Arts Interventions


  • Thurston County Museum of Fine Arts exhibition: noon-6 p.m. through July 15, with dance and gala 7-10 p.m. July 14
  • Light Up Olympia luminary workshops: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. July 14-16. (The workshops are full.)
  • Making Social Fabric: Building Community With Felt, drop-in learning experiences with Janice Arnold: noon-5 p.m. July 18 and 20
  • Making Social Fabric: Community Stomp and Dance Party with Janice Arnold: 4-8 p.m. July 22
  • Youth-led activation by The Bridge Arts Leadership Collective: July 22
  • Illuminate Pride festival: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 29

Olympia Armory, 515 Eastside St. SE, Olympia



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