Seeds planted 60 years ago have blossomed into the pride of Chesterfield County. The Baxter Perkinson Center for the Arts & Education is the region’s first public arts center to be built from the ground up in the last century.
It started in the 1950s, when John Rolfe Players brought community theater to Chester. The group disbanded in 1995, but the desire for cultural opportunities remained as arts devotees led by Betty Matthews conceived the idea for a cultural center.
The idea accelerated in 2004 when the county issued construction bonds, but the 2008 recession derailed private fundraising. Several years later fundraising resumed, and a $1 million gift in 2016 from retired dentist Dr. Baxter Perkinson and his wife, Elaine, provided the final momentum as well as inspiration for the center’s name. The Jimmy Dean Foundation, led by the country singer’s widow Donna Dean Stevens, also was a major donor, which earned Dean additional naming rights.
“The Number 1 thing we hear – people don’t know we exist,” says Sarah Snead, interim executive director and secretary of the center’s board. “We want people to know we’re here.”
Managed by the Chesterfield Cultural Arts Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, the $16.9 million, over 20,800-square-foot center located in Village Green next to the Chester Library boasts impressive facilities:
- 350-seat Jimmy Dean Theater with a 35- by 36-foot stage.
- The Baxter & Elaine Perkinson Art Gallery.
- 1,250-square-foot multipurpose education center with attached patio.
- 520-square-foot classroom equipped with sprung floors suitable for dance.
- Artists’ amenities: green rooms, ensemble dressing rooms, and star dressing rooms, some equipped with sprung floors.
- Catering kitchen, climate-controlled storage rooms, and a loading dock.
Art hangs everywhere, in hallways, classrooms – even restrooms. “You won’t find art just in the gallery,” says R. Jonathan Shelley, production manager and technical director. “The whole building is the art gallery.”
In addition to its primary use as a cultural center, the Perkinson is available to rent for private, corporate, and community events, including weddings. Chelsea Buyalos, director of education, is developing relationships with teaching artists to offer classes.
The center held a virtual livestreamed grand opening in December 2020 amid the COVID-19 quarantine, and has offered virtual and in-person live events since. (See our Around Town section for fall offerings.)
Jon says artists love the center, especially the stage. Andrea Brook, a performer with Sonic Butterfly, calls it “purposefully constructed to be of equal quality to a grand theater while offering an intimate environment that makes everyone feel at home.”
“Every single one of our performers have commented on the feel and the acoustics of this place,” Jon says. “All of them have commented, ‘I want to come back to this place.’ It’s that ‘clean” a room.”
Mary Abbyss of Chester Village Apartments “started taking pictures before the groundbreaking and did it daily until the gold letters were added.”
“I’m interested in everything the center offers,” says Mary, affectionately addressed as “Miss Mary” by staff. “I look forward to attending many functions. This location is perfect!”
The center’s staff basks in the rave reviews and shares a commitment to contribute to Chesterfield’s national reputation for quality of life.
Interim Director Sarah, a retired deputy Chesterfield County administrator, notes that the center is a new hammer in the county’s economic development toolbox. “This is an asset we can market,” she says.
“We’ve opened minds and allowed people to see the value that the arts can provide a community,” adds Chelsea.
Heather Miles, the center’s office manager, who also handles publicity, recalls an early memory of a grade school theatrical performance she was in. “I don’t remember much about my life from second grade but I remember exactly how it felt to be on stage,” she says. “Every single person who comes here – we’re affecting their lives and the lives of the people they tell. That energizes all of us.”