The years since 1977 have seen one woman’s vision, fed by strong conviction, grow into an amazing program that has helped adults with developmental disabilities achieve their goals in life that without The Creative Center might have remained merely a passing fancy. We have watched the program grow in number to a licensed capacity of 100 clients. We have seen the facilities expanded and improved by leaps and bounds and welcomed the technological advances that have opened more and more doors for our clients. We have watched personnel – staff and clients alike – come and go. But, the philosophy that Violet Ginsburg and her succession of administrators have shared of seeking out and enhancing the abilities of the wonderful population we serve has remained constant through the years.
As we celebrate the growth and accomplishments of The Creative Center, it is always with a sense of sadness and immeasurable appreciation that we honor the memory of The Creative Center’s Founder and Visionary, Violet Ginsburg, who sadly passed away on March 30, 2006 at age 87.
Just looking at the photographs of the facilities in the early years, it is amazing that anyone, even Violet Ginsburg, could envision what this program could be when the first organizational meeting was held in February 1977. Vi realized that she would need to convince a special group of friends and professionals that there was a great need among the developmentally disabled adult population in the Tulare County area for creative growth opportunities that simply were not being addressed in other arenas.
With the appropriate documentation having been prepared pro bono by local professionals, The Creative Center was officially incorporated in the State of California on September 22, 1977. The only things lacking at this time were — a program, clients and a staff — and a place to house them! But those proved to be no great obstacles to the founders. Vi and her friends were relentless in their pursuit of a place to house this dream of theirs, and when she called them over to look at the future home of what would become The Creative Center, she was met with more than a little pessimism.
In 1862, the land upon which The Creative Center now stands was Camp Babbitt, an outpost of the Union Army. By the turn of the century, the site had become home to a plating works plant, an icehouse, a barn and some warehouses. The years of rough usage of these facilities had taken their toll. Where most people saw a deserted plant that probably should be demolished, Vi Ginsburg saw a flourishing arts education facility dedicated to the idea that involvement in the arts is integral to the psychological and physical health of society as a whole, from persons with developmental disabilities in particular to the community at large.
Most still saw only a dirty mess. But, they dared not question their wonderful friend and visionary; and how grateful we are today that they stuck with her! In November 1977, the Visalia City Council voted to lease the old Plating Works Building to The Creative Center for $1.00 a year, a rate that has not increased as of today! Without doubt, The Creative Center would not function as it does today without the generosity of this City. The agreement does require $15,000 in improvements every five years, but this has been accomplished multiple times over in each five-year period, primarily because of the capital improvements made possible through the fundraising efforts of the Board of Directors and staff, and since 1999 by The Creative Center Foundation.
Classes for “The Creative Center for the Handicapped” as it was then known were begun at the facilities of the Tulare County Training Center for the Handicapped in Visalia on January 16, 1978 with the assistance of Bill Hess, the Director of the Training Center, and with Violet Ginsburg, Rena Petty and John Leffingwell teaching the four clients. Unbeknownst to Bill Hess at that time was that his daughter, who would be born later that same year, would years later become a star of stage and screen at The Creative Center!
Evening art classes were held for a time in the Mt. Whitney High School cafeteria. Inspiration, determination, perspiration and checkbooks became very critical over the next two years as many work parties and fundraising projects paved the way for the opening of The Creative Center on April 26, 1979. Since then, hundreds and even thousands more individuals have been involved as financial and “sweat equity” supporters of The Creative Center, along with countless business and civic groups in the area. From the rough guts of this old light industry site would emerge today’s beautiful Jon Ginsburg Gallery, a public visual arts gallery as well as a high tech equipped performing arts venue, four restroom facilities, and a fully functioning kitchen that for years served as a primary classroom for many subjects including cooking classes. Tons of food and beverages have been prepared there for receptions, shows and special events.
Many thanks go out to architect Ray Schlick, the Visalia Rotary, and far too numerous to mention philanthropic souls who made this project happen. An important early addition to the new facility was the construction of ramps at the entrances that made the facility wheelchair accessible. Later, the old blood bank building was moved from its location at Kaweah Delta District Hospital to its present site at Race and Bridge Streets where it continues to provide valuable office space for staff. As the Center population grew, more and more space was needed to accommodate the clients whose increased interests and abilities served as testimonials to Violet Ginsburg and friends that indeed their philosophy was right on! The outer buildings to the north were developed into classrooms, and in 1998, two additional classrooms plus costume and other storage space were added with the great financial assistance of the City of Visalia Redevelopment Agency. Two houses on Bridge Street, across from the office, were leased to facilitate primarily the teaching of life skills. In 2005, the City of Visalia donated to The Creative Center a 1,600 square foot building that had previously provided police offices. The Creative Center Foundation paid to have the building relocated to Ice House Park, and McMillin Homes and 21 of their subcontractors completely refurbished the building, inside and out, at absolutely no cost to The Creative Center. Thanks to The Creative Center Foundation, with some assistance from the Visalia Community Players at the Ice House Theatre, in 2010 we were able to install an amazing ornamental steel fence that encompasses all the facilities on the block, thereby providing increased security for all the clients served here while providing additional protection to the buildings and equipment that were previously accessible by the public.
Ongoing funding for this new concept in programming was a major struggle that ended in triumph. Initially it was difficult to convince governmental and community agencies to provide monies for such a project because many people were still of the opinion that the developmentally disabled had no need for artistic expression. But as the success of the unique programs of visual arts, performing arts and life skills instruction became apparent, so did the need for the growth necessary to accommodate more clients. Central Valley Regional Center, Inc. and Visalia Unified Adult School began funding this program in 1979 and the Center now proudly serves 90 to 100 adults with developmental disabilities each day throughout the year with 18 staff and an annual budget in excess of $800,000.
The clients and staff have moved from huddling around space heaters for warmth in the drafty old plating works building, shared with many pigeons and who knows what other creatures, to enjoying central air conditioning in any part of the facility into which one might wander. The Jon Ginsburg Gallery has been, since its inception, one of the finest art galleries in the area. The performing arts department now typically produces two major shows annually that have attracted in excess of 400 audience members on average for each show over the past eight years. The life skills department enjoys a high tech computer lab and a state of the art video editing room. Adaptive equipment has made it possible for clients with severely limited abilities to employ and enjoy the thrill of computers. Much success has been noted when core training sessions such as language arts have combined with the computer lab regularly to enhance learning that has seen some clients advance as much as four reading levels over a four month period.
It was 1996 when The Creative Center Board of Directors adopted a mission statement that defined what had been and what would be the purpose for existence of this unique program: “The Creative Center is a community arts center for adults with developmental disabilities with the mission of fostering self-expression, self-worth, personal growth and independence through: The Arts, Community integration, Providing cultural resources to the community, and Recognizing the individual’s value and contribution.”
It was in that same year that The Creative Center, under the leadership of Dennis Lipson, Jim Vidak, the late Emily Johns, Nick Sheklian, and Executive Director Helen Stanton, formed The Creative Center Foundation whose sole purpose for existence would be to share The Creative Center Story with the community and raise funds for capital needs.
A long-term goal of the Foundation is the growth of an endowment that would some day fund The Creative Center should other funding cease. The journey to all of these goals is well under way after years of planning, implementing, and putting lots of legwork into each area.
When one looks at The Creative Center today, it is only vaguely reminiscent of the day when Vi shared her vision. The funding for the current ramp and covered entryway, covered classroom walkway, air conditioning for classrooms, new vans, new flooring in several locations, the 7-foot ornamental steel fence around the facilities and many other visible and invisible projects resulted directly from the Foundation’s years of hard work. The Legacy Art League has also been established to provide for planned estate giving to The Creative Center Foundation. The Foundation, a non-profit organization in itself, operates under the governance of a Board of Directors with administrative functions entrusted to an executive director position.
The Creative Center is staffed by a team of professionals that works hard to insure that Violet Ginsburg’s dream stays alive and well. Of course, all of these people follow a long line of staff of which each one contributed building blocks that fashioned what The Creative Center has become today. From founder Violet Ginsburg through Executive Directors: Rena Petty, 1980 to 1983; the late John Leffingwell, 1983 to 1985; Kay Nelson, 1985 to 1993; Helen Stanton, 1993 to 1999; Bailey Hagar, Jr., 1999 to 2015, and Amanda Guajardo, 2016 to 2018, little would have been accomplished without the involvement of the entire community that we serve. To you all, on behalf of The Creative Center clients, staff, administration and Board of Directors, we say…thank you!