You never know what you'll find when you walk into the Sun Valley Center for the Arts: a torrent of paper draped to evoke Shoshone Falls, a curtain of glass depicting cultural icons, paintings by world-renowned artists such as Hung Liu, or whimsical installations about fairy tales, super heroes or bicycles.
It all serves the center's mission of creating multifaceted explorations of how we intersect with the world around us by asking questions such as: Are you your DNA? What will you give up to feel safe? How do you define yourself in an increasingly diverse world?
From its unassuming 4,700-square-foot building in Ketchum, the center has become a world-class museum known nationally for its layered, multidisciplinary approach that goes beyond just the visual.
Deeply rooted in the Wood River Valley, the Sun Valley Center brings the world to the Central Idaho town with appearances from international speakers, renowned artists and musicians and more that connect through the exhibit topics.
The staff, led by artistic director Kristin Poole, eagerly delves into different modalities - from lectures and literature to music and film - that offer new perspectives.
Most important, the center asks artists to create new work for each show.
"Our goal is to expand the national dialogue by commissioning works from artists," Poole says. "If artists relied only on commercial galleries, they would not be able to explore themes deeper. They'd be hamstrung by what would sell."
The speakers - such as Harvard history professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie and groundbreaking feminist Gloria Steinem - push the conversation further and deeper.
The center presents educational programs, music, dance and film screenings in venues around Ketchum. It puts on a world-class wine and food festival, an arts and crafts fair and a concert series each summer, and it forges partnerships with other area groups. It's all geared to get people thinking and talking about issues that affect and change our world.
"It's not about just delivering excellence in visual arts or music," Poole says. "It's about the context, the message and the resulting dialogue. It's something that's part of our mission, and it's something that separates us from other galleries and museums."
And now that conversation is set to expand dramatically with a new multimillion dollar building in the works and with the addition of the Company of Fools theater group in Hailey into the center's ranks.
WE'RE MERGIN', NO FOOLIN'
At a gathering of more than 100 folks at Hailey's Liberty Theater last month, the staffs of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Company of Fools - a theater company that produces contemporary plays and original theater at the Liberty in Hailey - popped a cork on their union.
This marriage of two powerhouse arts organizations combines their resources, aesthetics and talents to create an arts group that, at $3 million, has the largest working budget in Idaho.
The courtship started when the center approached Fools co-founder Denise Simone in 2011 about using a performance space in its planned facility, Simone says.
"At the time, it was a glorified lecture hall, so not really something we could do a lot with," she says. "But the conversation continued for about a year, and at the end of that year, the talk was about what would happen if we merged."
Seattle architect Tom Kundig is now working to add a 400-seat thrust-stage theater space to the building's design.
Bringing a theater company into its orbit adds another voice to the center's chorus.
You'll see the new combined organization in action in March for "Home Front," an exploration of how of the longest war in American history - in Afghanistan and Iraq - affects life here.
The main space in Ketchum will house a multimedia visual exhibit that will include Stephanie Fried Perenchio's riveting photography about the Navy SEALs and work by San Francisco artist Allison Smith, who incorporates social activism, history and craft into her art.
Company of Fools will produce a reading on April 12 at the center of Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," a play written in 2009 about a photojournalist recovering from an injury she received while embedded in Iraq. And the company has commissioned playwright Clay McCloud Chapman for a new work titled "Guiding Light." It's about a clairvoyant who communicates with dead soldiers, seeking to bring their souls home.
Chapman and actress Hannah Cheek will be in Hailey for a weeklong workshop and a reading on April 18 at the Liberty.
The Center also is bringing Adm. Jay Johnson to talk about the shifting tides of war. And as part of the partnership with the Family of Woman Film Festival (Feb. 28-March 3), all of its films will be themed around "Women and War."
CREATING THE CENTER
Glenn Cooper moved to Ketchum in the late 1960s after her husband, William Cooper, died of cancer. Longtime friends Bill and Ann Janss (Bill, a former Olympic skier, owned the Sun Valley Resort at the time) asked Cooper to found an arts center.
The Jansses had been to Aspen, Colo., and wanted to re-create its already-thriving arts community in Idaho.
They knew Cooper had experience helping to launch the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a stand-alone entity in the mid-1960s. Cooper initially said no to the task.
The reason she had moved to Idaho was to grieve, nest and take care of her five kids. But shortly afterward, Cooper, an avid skier, broke her hip on the slopes.
"I had to recover," she says. Suddenly, she had the time. "So I said yes. But I told them, 'It can't be an instant Aspen.' You can't impose the arts on people. And at the time, they didn't want the arts."
Wisely, she started small and targeted arts education as a core value - something the center remains true to today.
She started the Sun Valley Creative Arts Workshops in 1969, bringing artisans in to teach during the summers in some unused buildings on the resort's property. "We even had theater workshops in the old Dollar Cabin," she says.
Cooper brought in Yale theater professor Walt Jones for the first few summers. The workshops included photography, weaving, ceramics and painting. The workshops morphed into the center in 1971.
Ann Janss died in an avalanche at the resort in 1973.
Cooper and Bill Janss later married.
For many years, the center was deeply connected to the resort. Its first campus was on six acres along Trail Creek that Bill Janss deeded to the center. The first buildings they used were former sled dog kennels. The Community School now occupies that property.
When Bill Janss, who died in 1996, sold the resort in 1977, the center struggled to establish a new identity. The workshops continued until the late 1980s. Then the organization sold its property, moved into town and began to broaden its mission to meet the needs of a community that started to develop year round.
By 1993, Glenn Janss, who now lives in eastern Idaho, stepped back from day-to-day operations. The center moved into the 5th Street location in the mid-1990s and began developing its current mission to offer "exhibitions, lectures, classes and performing arts events that touch on issues relevant to our times, and by bringing some of the world's most interesting artists, writers and thinkers to our small community."
As the area developed, and with the community's support, the center has thrived and become an integral part of the Wood River Valley's life. It received its museum accreditation in 2006.
"Because of the community, we have the opportunity to have big-city urban experiences in an intimate small-town way," Poole says.
THE FOOLS IN IDAHO
Simone and her former husband, Rusty Wilson, founded Company of Fools in Richmond, Va., in 1992. They came to Hailey in 1996 at the invitation of their longtime friends Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Willis had bought the Liberty
Theater in the mid-1990s and transformed it from a 1930s-style movie house into a live performance space.
Founding Fool John Glenn made the trip from Virginia out west in 2000 to help run the operation. Then Wilson left in 2005.
Company of Fools is an artist-led organic theater. There is no artistic director and each "core artist" - right now that's just Simone and Glenn - has an equal say in decisions on and off stage.
The company produces a full season of everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary drama to frothy holiday fare. It also produces the "Stages of Wonder" program that goes into area schools.
And Fools also presents the renowned Second City, Chicago's legendary comedy club's traveling troupe each year, along with stand-alone performances by nationally known singers and actors. It also has been a forum for comedians such as Robin Williams to polish their routines, and a venue for actor's studio nights with big names such as Jodie Foster.
In 2004, the company received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.
The merger happened as both groups reached a similar point at the right time. The center was looking to further widen its reach into the community; the Fools wanted to secure its Idaho legacy.
The center has been expanding since the mid-2000s. In 2006, it acquired the Hailey House, the home where poet Ezra Pound was born. There, the exhibits echo the ideas in the Ketchum gallery, and often feature Idaho artists. Boise-based artists Kirsten Furlong, Chris Binion and Ben Love have been featured there. In December, photographer Andrea Scott's Idaho Buckaroo Project - a collection of photographs juxtaposed with exquisitely made ranching tools - filled the space.
The center also built the Art Barn, a large classroom on the property that holds workshops and events.
As the communication with Simone and her co-core theater artist John Glenn continued, Poole and company began to see another opportunity to expand and fill a gap in their programming.
At the same time, the Fools was in the midst of a personal exploration of purpose, community and legacy, Simone says.
"We were really stretching to see the horizon and to make sure that the organization could have a legacy in the community that was still asking us to be here - separate from the legacy of any one person," Simone says. "We're not a company happy with linear development. We were doing work the company was proud of - and though we weren't in a deficit - we weren't able to expand."
Glenn and Simone began to consider the next generation of Company of Fools - "If something were to happen, if one of us should leave, could the company continue?"
The answer had to be yes, Simone says.
That's the point where the center entered the picture. And the ayes kept coming.
It took a year for the merger to be ironed out. The two groups brought in John McCann, a nationally recognized arts consultant, to work out the details.
"It was an intense process and very much an 'I'll show you mine' ... situation," Simone says. "You have to look at every single thing when you bring two different cultures together."
The theater will continue to operate as Company of Fools and will continue to work out of the Liberty in Hailey. The arts center also will start programming at the Liberty - which can accommodate film as well as live performance. Once the new space is ready to occupy, Fools will start using that space, too.
The boards for each theater also merged, with members from each coming together and adding new members not affiliated with either group. Right now there are 22 board members, more than usual, but it's necessary during the merger and capital campaign that seeks to raise $17 million for the building and an endowment.
It's a hectic and creatively active time to undertake this transition, but these two groups did it right, says Idaho Commission on the Arts Director Michael Faison.
Both groups were coming from a position of strength, Faison says.
"If they had been doing this just because it was a struggle to keep the doors open, it would probably fail," Faison says. "As it is, they're both strong groups that could see their missions aligning. I think when institutions see natural collaborations and partnerships and work together - and now in this case formalizes them - you see a higher-quality artistic product. It will be exciting to see what comes out of this."
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Blogs.IdahoStatesman.com/ArtsBeat.