Rochester's west side has a growing number of arts and cultural amenities, the latest of which is the Douglass Auditorium, which will host visual art exhibits, performances, lectures, and artists talks. The rebranding of the space at 36 King Street, which formerly housed the Frederick Douglass Resource Center, was announced last week by Calvin Eaton, founder and CEO of "communiversity" 540WMain, who will also manage the space's programming.
Eaton says that the Douglass Auditorium will serve as a low cost, inclusive, and accessible theater space to groups and organizations committed to the arts, culture and social justice. The space will be reactivated as a result of 540's partnership with Matthew Drouin of real estate company ROC Real Captial, LLC.
The Frederick Douglass Resource Center opened in 2009 as "a not-for-profit cultural organization and community center committed to articulating the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass and sharing African American heritage and culture," Eaton wrote in last week's announcement. "The building was constructed on the site of what was once the West Side School for Boys with public and private funding including grants from Wegmans, The City of Rochester and more."
But for reasons unclear, the intended community programming never took off, Eaton says. The former Resource Center included an auditorium with a seating capacity of 80, exhibit space, a computer lab, and a reference library. What's left is the exhibit space, the auditorium, basic projector and sound capabilities, and Wi-Fi.
Drouin and Eaton connected in late 2018 when Eaton learned that the building had been purchased. A tenant in a Monroe Avenue building also owned by ROC Real Capital had been a panelist at a Gentrification Conference 540WMain held in the fall, and the renter helped connect Eaton with Drouin.
One of the offices in the former Douglass Resource Center building is currently leased to a pharm-tech startup company called PharmAdva, LLC, and ROC Real Capital was looking to lease the other office spaces. But Eaton says he didn't want it to just become "a gentrified office park," and feared that's what would happen without a conversation.
Eaton says that when he met with Drouin, he aimed to discuss the history of the building and what it meant to the community. While ROC Real Capital still intends to rent the remaining offices, and Drouin will move his headquarters to the building as well, Eaton says they came to an agreement that Eaton will serve as the director of the Douglass Auditorium.
540WMain will program specific lecture-style courses that require more audience space than its original space can provide, he says. In February the auditorium hosted 540's History of Redlining course.
Eaton says he'll manage the space's calendar, so that other social justice groups and small art groups, dance troupes, or people who need a space for an open mic or presentation can use the auditorium. He'll also be curating the art gallery, which will host exhibits from different institutions and groups each First Friday.
"One of the things we've been wanting to do is connect the area colleges to this neighborhood in terms of art, culture, and education," Eaton says.
Toward that end, 540 has partnered with St. John Fisher College's Lavery Library for the new space's debut exhibit, which will be an homage to Frederick Douglass opening Friday, April 5. The library has some Douglass artifacts collected by its previous director, and will lend rare covers of The North Star, as well as enlarged prints of photographs of Frederick Douglass from its online digital portfolio, Eaton says.
"I thought that would be the perfect way to set the tone for what people can expect from the space now," he says.
Going forward, Douglass Auditorium will place an emphasis on exhibiting artists of color, queer artists, and other marginalized creatives "who are not normally featured in the major art institutions in Rochester," Eaton says.
540 is talking collaboration with actor Gary DeWitt Marshall, Reenah Golden of The Avenue Blackbox Theatre, and Rachel DeGuzman of 21st Century Arts. Eaton is also partnering with his brother, Adam Eaton, founder of the Rochester Artist Collaborative, which commissions work by local artists to sell at pop-up events and online. Adam will program monthly artist talks, kicking off in June with a theme of why diversity is important in the arts.
Information and updates about Douglass Auditorium will be available at 540wmain.org.