Did you know that the Creative Arts Guild here in Dalton is the oldest community arts association in Georgia?

It’s been a part of our community since 1963 when a group of citizens got together and decided we needed a place for the arts in Dalton to spring from. It’s been a place of both education with its classes in dance, painting, drawing, sculpture and music, and in exhibition with shows highlighting artists and their arts in all fields of artistic expression. There have been shows in everything from fine art made from yarn to Irish music played by local artists.

It’s a place with a variety of artistic endeavors that’s as broad as the arts itself. And they have a great home in the current building that plays host and home to all these goings on as well as an annual Festival that extends the reach of the CAG far beyond the community borders.

The dream begins

I was around when the Creative Arts Guild was still at the old firehouse downtown, now home to the Dalton Little Theater. That space was small and had to be adapted to such endeavors as ballet lessons by taking upstairs rooms and putting mirrors on the wall and finishing the floors suitably for dancing. Downstairs, where the old fire wagons used to park, there was a small stage and a bit of space for display. In the back was a kiln for pottery and the space was constantly getting adapted to meet needs. The Festival was always fun there since it was held as a street party, with Pentz Street blocked off and the street filled with art on easels and performances all around. It was an art fair for everyone and all ages.

There was a dream that started for an arts home that would remedy the shortcomings of the fire hall space. In the 1970s, the plan was acted on and the campaign began for certain with the climax coming in 1981 when the current CAG building opened to great fanfare, great promise and, yes, great relief. I came across an essay, an historical monograph, that maps out the story of the fundraising and construction of the current building. It’s a compelling story. and one where there are a group of leaders but also an entire community that are the story’s hero.

Inside the building

Today’s building is in a contemporary style with a horizontal profile, striking in its modernity and a place where you know something special is going on. It’s been designed so activities that take place there are in different sections. There are wings on the end with offices and workspaces in the middle.

When you walk in, there’s a welcome desk with an airy meeting room behind it. To the left are the offices on one side and the culinary area on the other. This leads to a large gallery space for exhibitions and performance. The walls can be hung with art, sculpture can be displayed throughout the room or it can be transformed into a space for a piano recital, for example, or for a gala reception.

Heading the other way, you pass several small rehearsal rooms for music lessons and the main art instruction classroom. In the wing at that end there is space that’s been used for dance instruction as well as performance and exhibition as well. Film screenings have even taken place there. If there’s one phrase to describe the building, I think it’s artistic versatility, as the spaces can be easily repurposed for whatever they have going on there.

A homegrown success story

But how the CAG went from the cramped make-do space of the old fire hall to today’s multi-purpose architectural icon is what we’ll talk about now. I received an essay from and written by George Spence, one of the movers and shakers behind the construction effort of the CAG building. It recounts the dedication day, Oct. 14, 1981 with a keynote speech by Georgia U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and a flyover of an F-4 fighter jet. The building was dedicated with all bills paid and, get this, without any state or federal funds used. This is a homegrown success story.

George, in the commercial concrete business, first came to know the Guild when he enrolled his 7-year-old daughter in ballet classes under New York dance instructor Stanley Zompakos. Spence saw the limitations of the old fire hall location and as he gradually started volunteering for activities at the Guild was asked to be the treasurer for 1977.

He accepted once they told him that the artists running the place were focused on the arts and not bookkeeping. He took the books home and reviewed. The Guild was solvent and had a little money but things were being done in a somewhat ad hoc manner and so he moved forward to have the books balanced, the year-end closed, a monthly budget made and a year-end audit. All these were implemented and things were running smoothly as the Guild grew and even outgrew itself.

The options were put on the table to keep the fire hall but do work on it, find an existing space to rent or buy, or build a structure custom made for the arts. The new building idea captured George’s imagination.

George was elected president of the board of directors for 1979. Out of the gate they started moving toward the idea of a new building. All the CAG folks kicked in ideas and needs for what the building would require. The old fire hall had about 4,000 square feet. A proper new space would require at least 10,000 with room outside for performance, parking etc. This would give a basis for working up a budget for that size building.

Spence went and talked to Gibb Watts, president of the First National Bank (then locally owned) and went over the idea and queried him if he thought the project doable. Gibb thought the community would support this massive project and pitched Ellis Whitehead as the lead for fundraising. Ellis knew almost everyone in town. A building committee was selected and approved. It included Penny Barnes, Shirley Lorberbaum, Susan Reams, Shaheen Shaheen and Edith Westcott.

Fundraising and blueprints

The ball started rolling in May of ’79. It would be a two-pronged attack: fundraising and the blueprints.

The fundraising would be both corporate and personal. It turns out not only did Ellis know many folks in town but also seemed to have an idea on how much they might be able to donate. The major carpet mills, and there was a wider variety of them back then, were targeted at $30,000 each. Lesser or differing amounts from other businesses and individuals were also set as goals. With that the budget for the building was being closed in on.

Also up was to get an architect. With drawings, renderings and even a model, bids could be made and one accepted from builders. The building's needs were expressed and the architects contacted. Carl Smith came in as the committee’s selection and one of the reasons was that it was felt he would be good to work with on any changes that came along. This would prove to be very fortunate as things moved along.

The city of Dalton had land on the west side of town in the Waugh Street area reserved for buildings such as a new library and police station. Originally the city was going to donate the land where the Dalton-Whitfield County Senior Center now sits (tucked away on Cappes Street) but George liked the scenic (and attention-getting) site across the street easily visible from the busy thoroughfare. With the building on the hill next to a main road, the Guild could be its best advertisement. Whitfield County joined the effort and offered land preparation and sidewalks among other things. This was a true community-wide effort.

Raising the first dollar, and jumping through hoops

Some people say the first dollar is the hardest to raise and some say it’s the last dollar. For the Guild project, about two-thirds was raised when funds seemed to dry up. Ellis Whitehead didn’t see how the goal could be met and was talking of stepping down. As best happens in small towns, George talked with Gibb again and they went after Carl Griggs in order to get James Brown involved. With Brown on board, Ellis knew the project had new life and on they went. The groundbreaking ceremony was on Dec. 10, 1980.

There were still hoops to jump through. The builder, Dalton’s Smith & Green, was awarded the contract. It turns out Pleas Smith was Carl Smith’s dad, so as things needed to be worked out between contractor and architect there were no middle men, so any differences were quickly and efficiently worked out. The budget was to the wire and even a few things like a security system and the elevator had to be put off until later. The need for a hardwood floor for the dance studio was met by local donations, easing some pressure on the funds.

In October of 1981, Bernice Spigel, the CAG director from early on and throughout this whole process, proclaimed that a beautiful phoenix had risen from the foundation excavation mud. In the director’s report for that year she had a special thanks for George Spence who had ridden that wild bull of a project all the way through completion.

Our Creative Arts Guild is truly a community treasure.

Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.

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