Center of attention: Fort Ben Cultural Campus has become a Lawrence destination

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Once a diamond in the rough, Fort Benjamin Harrison has become a gem for the City of Lawrence.

With the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority at the forefront of redevelopment, the Fort has flourished and become a destination for local residents and visitors alike. A large part of the draw is the Fort Ben Cultural Campus, a small area near the center of the previous military base that serves as a community meeting place.

The Fort Ben Cultural Campus is a project overseen by Arts for Lawrence. The nonprofit has curated a small section of the Fort to be the focus of community art and entertainment. From live theater to a place to host an artsy girls’ night out, the organization works to foster a sense of culture in the city.

The Theater at the Fort, at 8920 Otis Ave., is one of the focuses of the Cultural Campus. It is a historic theater preserved from its earlier days when Fort Harrison was still a military base. The theater has a rich history since being built in 1929. It has received modern renovations in recent years.

Arts for Lawrence received a $5.8 million grant from the Lilly Endowment’s “Strengthening Indianapolis through Arts and Culture Innovation” initiative in 2019. The grant allowed the theater to receive new carpet and flooring, lighting and updated seats and have repairs made to the stage.

Elana Thompson, the executive director of Arts for Lawrence, said the upgrades have been “great” and helped to make the theater a destination in the city.

“It’s really great the upgrades that have been made to the Theater,” Thompson said. “I started my position on Sept. 6 and I love seeing people come in and enjoying the updates.”

The theater’s dressing rooms also received an upgrade with new countertops and mirrors.

The building houses more than just theater-based entertainment. The second level of the building has a puppet stage and live-art model room. Previous puppet presentations include “Peewinkle’s Christmas Puppet Show,” which debuted in the winter of 2021 at the Theater at the Fort. This year, “The Wizard of Oz” will be performed at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 10 by Stevens Puppets.

Thompson said the open area facing the stage is where Arts for Lawrence occasionally holds figure drawing classes.

“We’ll set up easels and people will come with their own materials to draw a nude model,” Thompson said. “It’s really fun to see who we have show up, especially if it’s someone we know.”

The Visual Arts Center, at 8970 Otis Ave., is another building Arts for Lawrence presents art-related events. This month, the gallery is hosting the ArtisTree show, where local artists submitted small, holiday-themed artworks to be displayed.

In the basement of the Visual Arts Center is the ceramics studio, which has eight pottery wheels that people can reserve for their own events. Thompson said the room is especially popular for girls’ night events.

“We’ve had women rent this out for a fun and different girls’ night activity, birthday parties or anyone looking to do some art,” she said. “We also offer art nights as rehab for veterans with the Sterrett Center.”

Guests of the ceramics room have the option to hand-form clay or use the pottery wheels. Then, the clay creations are dipped in glazes, ranging from “barn red” to turquoise, and are fired in a kiln.

Thompson takes pride in the various programs and events Arts for Lawrence hosts, with the Theater being at the center of it all.

“We have so many programs and events happening, and the theater is so cool,” Thompson said. “I hope to see more people come out.”

Arts for Lawrence has several special events during the holiday season. For more, visit artsforlawrence.org.

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