Madison Youth Arts Center creates a home suited specifically for local kids’ programs

MYArts, the new $29 million, four-story home for 25 to 30 other arts and community outreach groups creates a space for kids for meeting, learning, rehearsing and performing.
three teens sitting in the myarts space
Photo by Steven Potter
Children's Theater of Madison actors (left to right) Kai DeRubis, Seb Arora and Ari Rowe

Through the main doors of the nearly finished Madison Youth Arts Center — or MYArts, the new $29 million, four-story home for Madison Youth Choirs and Children’s Theater of Madison — kids are first greeted with a glowing array of multi-colored lights lining the ceiling. Judging from these first few steps into the new building on the near east side, it’s clear designers wanted to welcome and engage children, to capture their attention and ignite their imaginations.

Walking through the halls, children on their way to acting, singing or dance rehearsals will encounter many more splashes of color, as well as natural light pouring in from expansive windows both in and outside the studio-classrooms. Scattered about, there are also a number of lounges accented by funky light fixtures and cool chairs in spaces that were built specifically to give kids a place to socialize and make new friends.

Overall, the vibe of the building on the corner of North Ingersoll and East Mifflin streets is like that of a high school after the day’s final bell has rung and the kids in extracurricular art programs have taken over — the place just feels happy. And that’s good news not only for Madison Youth Choirs and CTM members, but also for the kids from at least 25 to 30 other arts and community outreach groups that have expressed interest in meeting, learning, rehearsing or performing at the new center.

Kai DeRubis, a 17-year-old actor who’s performed with CTM for a few years, says that besides the bright and colorful space, another major benefit of the arts headquarters is its central and singular location.

“Before, we had to rehearse in a couple of different places and we were spending a lot of time going between places,” says the Clark Street Community School senior who also takes choir and other classes at Middleton High School. “It was difficult to move around so much.”

“Now, we have just one space to be in,” he adds. “And it’s ours.”

But it’s also about far more than just location.

exterior of Madison Youth Arts Center

Photo by Steven Potter

“We can finally all be together,” says Seb Arora, a 16-year-old West High School student who joined CTM nearly 7 years ago. “Now [we] have this sense and feeling of community.”

That belonging, acknowledgement and acceptance are exactly what organizers, administrators and fundraisers had in mind when they first began dreaming about how such a center — devoted exclusively to young people pursuing art and creative expression — could exist in Madison.

“To know that we have created a space that honors the process of learning and creation as much as the product of performance is really validating for young people,” says Roseann Sheridan, who’s been CTM’s artistic director for 13 years.

Before MYArts, she says, numerous student art programs were scattered around the city in “church basements or an abandoned storefront or a former factory — wherever we could find space.”

kids standing inside of Madison Youth Arts Center's black box theater

Photo by Steven Potter

Room to Grow

With the new, nearly 70,000-square-foot building, youth arts groups finally have ample space to use for practices, performances and more.

In all, MYArts includes more than a dozen rehearsal studios — ranging in size from 600 to 2,000 square feet — that have been designed for a wide range of arts, especially music, theater and dance, as well as a 300-seat theater and the black box theater — a smaller and more intimate space with up to 120 seats — for the kids to show off their hard work.

There’s also 400 feet of linear art rail throughout the building where visual artists can hang their pieces. And there are full-scale costume and set production shops, office space and a couple of large outdoor patios, which will come in handy before and after shows.

With CTM and Madison Youth Choirs as the anchor partners right now, other programs that are currently using or have expressed interest in the space include Black Star Drum Line, Madison Ballet, Drum Power, Suzuki Strings of Madison and Little Picassos.

Given the mix and proximity of users, there’s a strong chance that children will creatively explore other arts — which is exactly what organizers hope for.

interior of the Madison Youth Arts Center

Photo by Steven Potter

“We want a really wide variety of performing arts especially, and to some degree, visual arts, and an overlap across disciplines and across different parts of our community,” says Director of Community Partnerships Jessica Courtier, who serves as co-director of MYArts with Director of Facilities Courtney Byelich.

“Maybe they come in for a theater class, but they go see a drum class or dance class and they think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’d like to do that,’ ” she continues. “Or they think, ‘I’ve always been interested in the arts but I’m not sure I want to be on stage. Maybe I want to be behind the scenes learning new skills.’ And then the possibility and connection can happen between various arts organizations that are all using this space.”

State of the Art

Not only was this space constructed for the youth to learn and perform various arts, it was built to foster their excellence as well — as you would expect from a building with a $29 million price tag.

In addition to the state-of-the-art performance areas and studios and practice spaces that include things like sprung floors that are easier on dancers’ joints, the entire building is designed for optimal acoustic quality. The design also prioritizes accessibility (for example, wheelchair theater seats are placed toward the middle rows instead of the back), and there’s even a sensory-friendly studio for students on the autism spectrum.

“Like every other nonprofit youth arts group in Madison, we’ve never had permanent space,” says Madison Youth Choirs managing director Lynn Hembel. “And this space was designed specifically for how we would use it.”

Roseann Sheridan looks over costume sketches

Roseann Sheridan looks over costume sketches in CTM’s new headquarters within MYArts, which also includes enough storage space for hundreds of vibrant outfits and props. Photo by Steven Potter

While it’s not open yet — organizers are planning open houses for the public sometime in mid-October, pending COVID-19 developments — the center is being used sparingly by groups like CTM for summer camps. Other groups have been checking out the new spaces and are itching to get in there themselves.

Those who have already been rehearsing at MYArts — including Arora, the West High senior — know scores of students will use every inch of the center in years to come.

“I’m very jealous of the kids that will use this in the future,” she says. “It’s a really special space.”

Steven Potter is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine and a senior producer with Wisconsin Public Radio.