JANESVILLE—At a time when arts programs are among the first funding cuts in tight school budgets, groups remain that consider spending on creativity a necessary investment in the future.

At the Janesville Performing Arts Center, officials are pouring an estimated $300,000 into a new education and outreach space they plan to use as an incubator for local youth theater and musical efforts.

JPAC Executive Director Nathan Burkart views the new space as something sorely needed. He reasons JPAC’s annual attendance has grown from about 17,000 patrons in 2016 to nearly 28,000 this year, and much of that increase has come from a burgeoning youth population.

“The major need for this space is to show JPAC is dedicated to education and outreach,” he said. “If you don’t have a designated spot for something, you really haven’t committed to it yet. It’s still something that could be cut one day.

“If you have a $300,000 investment you’ve built as part of your center and is strictly for education and outreach, you’ve committed. It’s something that’s part of your business plan, it’s part of your strategic vision and mission, and it’s something you’re going to build around rather than leave it as that side thing that creates extra revenue.”

The space in question—the pool area of the former Janesville High School that houses JPAC—is being transformed from a antiquated, dank cavern to a fresh, well-lit playground for creativity. The 1,500-square-foot area will be used for auditions, classes, rehearsals, rentals and some storage.

“That space was in no condition to show anybody,” Burkart explained. “There was no working electricity, the cavity of the floor (the pool) was full of junk from the 2004 renovation, and the only people allowed back there were JPAC and building owner staff. It was not a museum piece.

“This renovation will allow people to come in and enjoy (the space) all the time as opposed to it being this closed-off room that nobody knew existed.”

As part of the renovation, the pool (which will house mechanical components for JPAC) will be carefully covered and have carpet laid over top. Burkart hopes to preserve some of the original tiles to incorporate into the room’s redesign, and the surrounding brick walls will be cleaned and their murals preserved as much as possible. Other nods at the room’s history also are being considered.

In addition, new light fixtures will be installed, and an interior wall has been removed to allow light from a bay of windows facing the Rock River to cascade inside.

“I want people to walk in and know the old pool was here, to a degree,” Burkart said. “Part of what makes JPAC special is they did such an awesome job of preserving the old. There are people who have sponsored seats at JPAC because they have a connection to the building and, in turn, a connection to JPAC. It is important to the performing arts center that we keep those details so you can walk in and have your memories. That’s important to us.”

Equally important is securing much-needed space to expand the education and outreach department. In addition to serving local youth who partake in JPAC’s various classes and programs, the department works with groups from surrounding areas without direct access.

Burkart says the need of the latter group is often fed by a lack of artistic opportunities.

“Jim (McCulloch, JPAC’s education and outreach director) works with the high school in Whitewater, and I think he would say while they (students) get this (exposure to the arts) in school, it’s limited because there are only so many resources in the district,” he said. “And a lot of these kids do other things besides just theater, so it’s a very small range of kids that get those resources.”

Because of its year-round focus on the arts, McCulloch—who has also worked with St. Mary School and TAGOS Leadership Academy in Janesville and with schools in other communities—believes JPAC can provide often-busy students more creative flexibility.

“If a kid is involved in fall sports and that’s when the fall musical is, you have to make choices,” he said. “We’re providing the same services throughout the year, so maybe we’re able to catch that kid who is going to be in sports in fall but wants to be involved (in theater). Maybe you can try out for a winter play or a spring play, or take a class at a different time of year.

“We’re reinforcing what the school is doing, and the school is reinforcing what we’re doing. That brings a sense of community that supports the arts.”

Burkart also sees the new space as an opportunity to resurrect popular programs that have been discontinued elsewhere.

“There are all these great programs through the (Janesville) school district that just don’t exist anymore, such as the fourth- and fifth-grade orchestra,” he said. “The district is allowed to make those changes, but as I’ve said, JPAC can be the entity that picks things up and gives them back to the community for those who still want to be part of them.”

The overall goal is to provide youth with opportunities that, while becoming increasingly limited in some ways, might be more important now than ever before.

“Once you get to an age where kids are able to understand and can take direction, you’re kind of teaching them life skills,” McCulloch said. “And they don’t even know they are learning them because it’s giving them the self-confidence to get up in front of a group of people to speak intelligently about things. It provides kids with that mental outlet to be able to express themselves in a way they’re not getting with their cellphones. They need to know how to develop those interpersonal connections.”

As Burkart notes, those soft skills are valuable regardless of the life path a young person takes.

“Jim and I went to school for theater, and we’re administrators now,” Burkart said. “This is a breeding ground for so many other things. I know people who did theater that are therapists, politicians, lawyers and business leaders.

“It’s not about developing professional actors at this level, it’s about developing leaders in the community,” he said. “And people who are comfortable being those leaders.”