The History of The Center for the Arts

In the annals of Grass Valley’s history, The Center for the Arts has undergone a remarkable transformation, once a hub for buying automobiles, it now stands as a vibrant cultural center. The facility, spanning 1947 to 1984, was once home to Hartman Chevrolet, Hartman Toyota, Oldsmobile, Hansen’s Subaru, and even a Yamaha dealership.

In the late ’80s, a visionary named Jerry Lee seized the opportunity, acquiring the building and reimagining it as the Metropolitan Beauty School. As the ’90s unfolded, the building saw diverse tenants, from Gold Cities Gymnastics and Dance Center to a brief stint as a video production facility.

The turning point arrived in 1998 when The Center took the reins, leasing the building from Jerry Lee. Then, in 2001, entrepreneur Jon Blinder stepped into the scene, purchasing the building.

The year 2002 marked a pivotal moment in our history. The building underwent extensive repairs and remodeling. New bathrooms, the Off Center Stage, and an upstairs dance studio for Sierra Dance Institute were installed. Electrical, plumbing, and heating/air conditioning systems received crucial upgrades.

By 2003, Jon Blinder generously donated the building to The Center for the Arts. The following year, the Front and Center campaign kicked off, paving the way for a new facade, gallery, and entry. Recognition soon followed as Grass Valley received the Golden Eagle Award for Adaptive Reuse in 2005 from the California Downtown Association.

2009 was a big year for The Center. Julie Baker was hired as the Executive Director, The Center had its first 950-seat show at Grass Valley’s Veterans Building, and the City of Grass Valley granted a groundbreaking $250,000 in Redevelopment Agency funds to plan for capital improvements. Following this grant were many conversations with local arts groups to come together to create one central performing arts venue. 

No partnership was made and so by 2016 The Center for the Arts decided to embark on its own major renovation project. The Center hired Amber Jo Manuel to lead the project and in 2018 The Center broke ground for an extensive, $6.1 multi-million dollar renovation project. By this time, Manuel was now Executive Director of The Center and embarking on her fourth theater renovation project. The project would provide a state-of-the-art theater facility with 507 retractable seats, a new art gallery, a bar and cafe, and a Meyer Sound System. Manuel had already worked with Helen and John Meyer on two theaters and discovered they were dear friends of one of The Center’s supporters, Jeffrey Leiter. With the help of Leiter and support from Julia Amaral and Mark Strate, The Center secured a top-of-the-line sound system.

 In March of 2020, on the literal eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Center had its grand reopening. Tinsely Ellis played for the first and last show.  There wouldn’t be another live audience in the theater until September 2021. The Center has now grown to be a cultural marvel and true staple of the community.