Art Center of Waco board members and staffers likely won’t be going back to the building they called home for more than 40 years, after a structural problem forced its evacuation Oct. 4.

Board President Jill Michaels said the departure, forced by a critical support beam pulling away from an exterior wall, likely will be permanent as Art Center board members, administrators and supporters accelerate their search for a new building or space.

McLennan Community College officials closed the building, which it leases to the Art Center of Waco, after an inspection found the structural problem was getting worse. The action temporarily moved the center’s current photographic exhibition and Art Center staff to Cultivate 7twelve, a gallery and arts space in downtown Waco.

As Art Center officials looked at the possible timeline of repairs and the upcoming expiration of their building lease, they realized the time to move has come.

“MCC, and rightly so, puts safety before everything else,” Michaels said. “The reality of this is that we are not able to return to our building.”

The center has used that building, built in the 1910s as the summer home of the William Cameron family, since 1976, after a major renovation of the property funded by Art Center donors and the college.

A board subcommittee had been exploring relocation options for some time and started to intensify its efforts after MCC informed the center this summer that it would not renew its lease on a long-term basis when it expires in September 2018.

Michaels said the board felt it likely that, given a possible 90-day lease extension, the center would have until the end of 2018 to move.

Discovery of the structural problem and the scale of its repair, however, threw that timetable out the window.

MCC officials are awaiting a report on what repairs are needed and at what cost, but Sid Ross, MCC director of facilities, planning and construction, said the structural problem likely won’t be a quick or cheap fix.

The beam in question lies under the main gallery floor and supports second-story floor joists. It had begun to pull away from the center’s east exterior wall, causing minor sagging of the gallery floor and a two- to 3-inch gap between the floor and wall inside.

If the beam should suddenly fail, it could pull the floor down with it and possibly cause the exterior wall to collapse, a potential life-threatening disaster if anyone were in the building at the time.

“We shut it down in the name of safety,” Ross said.

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Art Center move

Steel supports brace the Art Center of Waco's east exterior wall.

The center and MCC’s Northwood House, the Cameron family’s former carriage house, are the campus’ oldest buildings, constructed roughly a century ago. Even before the structural issue, MCC officials knew the Art Center’s building was due for a major remodeling.

The potential cost of that led to the decision not to renew the center’s lease next year, said Stephen Benson, vice president for finance and administration. The Art Center has paid MCC $10 annually for the lease, while the college covers maintenance and utilities, Benson said.

“It’s been a good partnership for the college and the Art Center,” he said.

The major expense of building renovation, however, made college officials consider changing its use for a more direct benefit for MCC, such as office or classroom space or as a community-use venue, Benson said.

MCC’s plans for the Art Center building will hinge on what a report from an architect and structural engineer finds.

“In the next month or two, we’ll know the extent of what repairs need to be done and how much to fix it,” Benson said.

With the realization they are unlikely to return, the Art Center has redoubled its efforts to find a location downtown or nearby.

Much of the Art Center’s income comes from memberships, fundraisers, including one scheduled Friday at Balcones Distillery, classes and courtyard rentals. The center will be able to continue its courtyard rentals, but the loss of some classes and its gift shop due to the building closure will hit its budget, as will the extra expense of renting office and storage space, Michaels, the board president, said.

“We are very concerned and dipping into the money that was going toward a new building,” she said. For years, Art Center of Waco administrators and board members have discussed the possibility of moving to a more central site, its present north Waco location on the edge of the MCC campus viewed as hard for a visitor to find.

The Art Center of Waco bought a 2.2 acre tract in downtown Waco from the Waco Independent School District in 2001, but after the center failed to build on the property, the district bought back the land in 2007.

Downtown development in recent years has heated up real estate prices, complicating the board’s search. Renovation of an existing building is more likely than construction of a new facility, but options are open, Michaels said.

“Everybody wants us downtown. Whether that’s Elm Street, midtown, uptown or downtown, we don’t know,” she said. “I feel confident we can find a space.”

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor

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