Armory Center Celebrates 25 Years

Susan and John Caldwell honored for their philanthropy

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 | 3:28 am

John and Susan Caldwell honored at the Armory Center for the Arts' 25th Anniversary Saturday night

Hundreds of proud art lovers and supporters of Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts gathered at the Raymond Street facility to celebrate 25 years of community arts, and to honor Susan and John Caldwell, two of its strongest supporters since its beginning.

“This is a remarkable night that allows us to celebrate 25 years of making a profound difference in our community, said Armory Center executive director Scott Ward. “It also allows us to honor the extraordinary Susan and John Caldwell, who have been instrumental in allowing us to be successful. They have been the best volunteers, the best cheerleaders, the best mentors, and they have been essential to our ability to make a difference. We would be not be here tonight without them.”

The publicity-shy John Caldwell gracefully begged off our request for an interview, and offered only a quiet “Thank you,’ from the podium as he and his wife, Susan, were honored.

The Armory Center for the Arts has been operating in Southern California in one form or another for more than 60 years, originating as the education department of the Pasadena Art Museum in 1947.

The museum closed in 1974, and the education program became known as the Pasadena Art Workshops, working on-site in partnerships with schools, libraries, parks, neighborhood groups, community centers and city agencies..

The Pasadena Art Workshops changed its name to the Armory Center for the Arts after renovating and moving into a former National Guard  Armory in 1989. With 20,000 square feet, the building provided ample space for art studios, workshops and galleries.

Susan Caldwell was one of the original volunteers and teachers, instructing students in photography. Her husband, John, a very successful furniture designer, supported the center as a benefactor from its very first days.

History of the Armory Center for the Arts

25 years ago, pure chance brought together a prestigious gallery program and an innovative visual arts education program under one roof. Armory Center for the Arts was born through the work of many  individuals including Elisa Crystal (then­director of Pasadena Art Workshops), Jay Belloli (then­director of Caltech’s recently­closed Baxter Art Gallery), and especially Susan Caldwell (then­president of the Pasadena Art Alliance).

The Armory’s roots, though, were planted as far back as 1947 in the education department of the Pasadena Art Museum. Classes there were led by artists whose teaching concepts grew out of the  museum’s exhibitions of modern art — a common practice today, but a revolutionary idea at the time.

After the Pasadena Art Museum closed in 1974 (and became the Norton Simon Museum), the art education program was informed by the new leadership that youth art education did not fit into the  vision of Mr. Simon’s “new” museum. The art education department splintered off and became known  as the Pasadena Art Workshops. Without a permanent space for exhibitions, and using professional artists as teachers, the workshops focused on the development of arts programs that presented alternative forms of learning. Gala honoree Susan Caldwell, currently president of the Rowe & Gayle Giesen Trust, recalls the transition:

“In 1974, Norton Simon assumed control of the Pasadena Art Museum and closed the children’s education department. Rowe (Giesen) gathered friends together in the abandoned school yard of Lincoln School. We sat on broken benches, amidst dirt, leaves, and shattered glass, and explored how the Trust could be the catalyst for the creation of a new children’s art institution. Rowe had a vision, and the Pasadena Art Workshops was born.”

By working in partnerships with schools, libraries, parks, neighborhood groups, community centers and city agencies, the Workshop’s programs brought the arts to new audiences . These types of  community­based collaborations continue to this day.

In 1989, the move to a former National Guard Armory in Old Pasadena began when a city­appointed task force charged with identifying underutilized city property reached out to Susan Caldwell at the Pasadena Art Alliance. Susan, along with Jay Belloli (Caltech’s Baxter Art Gallery), met with Pasadena Art Workshops director Elisa Crystal to tour a hulking, dilapidated, pigeon-filled building on Raymond Avenue — which was the home of the somewhat­defunct Pasadena Badminton Club.

After negotiations with the City and raising $1 million dollars, The Pasadena Art Workshops renovated the former National Guard Armory, joined forces with the Baxter Art Gallery supporters, moved in, and renamed itself Armory Center for the Arts. With 20,000 square feet, the building provided ample space for art studios, workshops and galleries. The new setting also allowed for the reintroduction of contemporary exhibitions and performances, which in the years since have become an integral part of  the Armory’s programming. The unique floor plan of the Armory encourages ideas to flow freely among  exhibitions, classes, artists, teachers and students.

After 13 years in the National Guard Armory building, the Armory began to experience growing pains. In 2002, it underwent a $2.4 million transformation, creating an additional 6,800 square feet of  classroom and studio space for drawing and painting, digital arts and photography. In its first year the Armory welcomed approximately 40,000 visitors. Twenty-five years later, the number of participants and visitors to Armory programs exceeds 100,000 annually.


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