Nancy Hannahoe remembers hiding under her aunt’s piano as a child and catching envious glimpses of the grown-up world from under its shadow.
Her aunt would always “honky-tonk” on the piano at the roaring parties she hosted. Hannahoe said her aunt would only pause the music to take a sip of her beer or puff on her cigarette.
“I’d sit under there and watch the adults and think, ‘I’m going to wear high heels like those,’ or ‘I’m going to smoke one day,’ or ‘I’m going to wear a hat like hers,’” Hannahoe said.
Hannahoe bought a piano in her 20s because she wanted to play like her aunt. However, the now 71-year-old retiree did not immediately pick up her flair for music.
“I was too busy being twenty. When you’re an adult it’s always, ‘I’ll do that later.’ So the piano sits in my house, collecting dust,” she said.
Decades later, Hannahoe has been given the chance to shake that dust by taking piano classes at the Phoenix Center for the Arts.
A hub for the arts community in downtown Phoenix located next to Margaret T. Hance Park on Third and Moreland streets, the arts center offers tuition-based classes and outreach programs for adults and youth.
The offerings include one-day classes, four- to eight-week courses and 12- to 14-week courses that are priced according to their length. The tuition fees provide most of the funding for the arts center and go to pay for supplies, instructors and for the building itself.
Classes include ceramics, various styles of dance, painting and drawing, mosaics, music and photography for multiple skill levels.
Founded in 1975, Phoenix Center for the Arts is not a new institution. However, it is a recent addition to downtown’s nonprofit landscape.
Owned by the city until 2011, the recession nearly closed the arts center’s doors. The community protested and the Phoenix Center Arts Association stepped in and took over the institution, keeping it open as a nonprofit.
Despite nearly going under, the organization has been able to stay true to its roots.
“We have students here who have been taking classes for more than 30 years,” center director Joseph Benesh said. “I’m glad it hasn’t changed that much because people have truly found a home away from home here. It’s a safe haven for ideas and thoughts and community.”
When the organization became a nonprofit two years ago, there were a total of 200 students enrolled, according to Benesh. Now there are 500.
Benesh said he believes the arts center has a more important place in the community than ever due to the decreasing role of the arts in mainstream education. In the push for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or “STEM” — education, he said people often forget to add an ‘A’ for the arts to make it “STEAM”.
“Arts education in school is dropping quite a bit, but people still have a need for art. That’s where community centers come in,” center instructor Anne Rasmussen said. “The community needs to feed art, and art feeds them back.”
Rasmussen teaches an adult ceramics class that students attend weekly for the length of a semester. She has taught at the arts center for seven years and has been a ceramic artist for over 18 years.
“I really like teaching people and helping people find that joy,” Rasmussen said. “People come and want to try something new. I hope I can help them do that.”
Rasmussen is only able to teach at the community level because of her limited arts education experience. However, she said she enjoys and sees an advantage to community center education.
“It’s a lot more laid-back here. There’s not a grade environment,” Rasmussen said. “People are focused on having fun and getting away from jobs. You’re finding life through art.”
Kristin Antkoviak, a 31-year-old microbiologist who just started Rasmussen’s ceramics course, said she benefited from this environment that Rasmussen and her previous instructors had created.
“There’s all these rules! Your head’s just full of all this stuff. I don’t know if it’s healthy for you,” Antkoviak said of her scientific field and work. “It’s so nice to work with your hands, to mess stuff up a little. I enjoy being able to escape from work and everything else.”
There has been a rise in galleries and an increased appreciation for public art in the past two decades in downtown Phoenix, Benesh said. First Fridays, started by fellow downtown arts nonprofit Artlink in 1994, is now the country’s largest monthly art walk, often drawing crowds in the tens of thousands.
“I think it would be a fair argument, and one that many people make, to say that the arts and First Fridays revived downtown,” Benesh said.
The arts center’s ability to provide education and to be a “place” in downtown is one of its greatest values in Benesh’s eyes.
“Art and creativity is just going to happen. No matter what, people are going to sing in their shower and dance around the room,” he said. “The difference is that we give people a place in the community to do that. We give a safe haven for art.”
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