Oxford Community Arts Center celebrates 20th anniversary

Rain moved the party inside but many people were still on hand to mark the date the Oxford Community Arts Center was founded 20 years earlier.

A celebratory crowd was on hand Oct. 29 marking the two-decade anniversary of the date in 2001 when the OCAC was incorporated, officially marking the start of what has become a community centerpiece in those 20 years. The day was officially named Oxford Community Arts Center Day in the city by proclamation of Mayor Mike Smith and the proclamation was read during the celebration program by Council Member Edna Southard.

“The Oxford Community Arts Center incorporated in 2001 to save the historic building and repurpose it for use as a community arts center, providing a needed arts space for the adults, families and children who reside in Oxford and the surrounding areas. The OCAC now serves as a vibrant multi-generational gathering place with classes, performances, workshops and community engagement events that reach over 13,000 participants annually,” an explanation on the arts center’s web site explains.

The building is owned by Miami University but had been closed as a women’s residence hall. Around the time that the building closed, a group of Oxford citizens came together to both establish an arts center and to preserve the historic building.

“I just want to say how fortunate Oxford is to have such a group of totally unrealistic dreamers,” retired attorney Jim Michael said at the celebration. He served as the attorney for the group wanting to incorporate the arts center and did that paperwork as well as taking part in the negotiations with Miami for lease of the property. “Bob Campbell came to my office with the crazy notion of converting this building into an arts center.”

The building was in dire need of repair with plaster having fallen and many internal work items needed, he said. Early plans called for such things as businesses and restaurants to have space in the building and a linchpin was to be relocation of the Smith Library of Regional History in the facility from the Lane Library across the street.

Eventually, Lane Library leaders decided against that location and moved the Smith Library into its new building on South Locust Street. Michael said that could have ended the hopes of an arts center project because of the loss of potential rent but new, and better, ideas surfaced including such things as the Art Shop and third-floor artist studios.

He praised the partnership with Miami University in working out the 25-year lease for the property, with another 25-year renewal clause.

“It is impossible to overstate the role of Miami University in developing the arts center,” Michael said.

Fund raising was a challenge but the community met that challenge.

“Fundraising was amazing for the project,” he said. “Now, we have a space that is truly part of the community.”

A partner in the project was OxACT and their board president Becky Howard spoke with a brief history of the community theater group. She said OxACT began its formation in 1996 with shows in various venues until 2002 when they had their first production in the Oxford Community Arts Center.

She reviewed a 2008 history of OxACT culled from meeting minutes, reading the summary in the final paragraph.

“It is gratifying to be reminded that the OxACT vision from 1998 for a “New Building/Facility” has come to fruition, fully embracing the belief that ‘this space would truly become a community space for the arts and a calendar of events could span the entire year,’ " Howard read. “This space could become an important part of the identity of this city, given the location of this historic building and the community’s need for its own performance space.”

OCAC Director Heidi Schiller thanked everyone for attending and introduced her predecessor, Caroline Lehman Croswell, who served as executive director from December 2006 until October of last year.

“The first year we had 4,000 visitors. The last year I could get a count, we had 18,000 visitors. The first budget I had wasn’t one,” she said, noting all the money then went to heating and building expenses. “It was an honor to be director of the Oxford Community Arts Center.”

The historic building, Miami University’s former Oxford College, was originally chartered in 1849 as the Oxford Female Institute at the corner of College and High streets.

In 1856, a new three-story building was built to the south and the two buildings were connected by a latticed walkway. By the end of the 1800s, the buildings had been connected with additions for a north wing, library, chapel and other rooms. In 1928, Miami University acquired the building and remodeled it to unify the different parts of the building with a Georgian facade.

The ballroom, the final addition, was added by Miami University in 1929 with monies raised by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in honor of First Lady Caroline Scott Harrison, who was born in Oxford in 1832 and was to become the wife of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, elected in 1888.

She graduated from the Oxford Female Institute, where her father, John Witherspoon Scott, was the first president and she met the future U.S. president while he was a student in Cincinnati. He transferred to Miami and graduated in the early 1850s. They were married in 1853, the year after their graduations.

Caroline Scott Harrison served as the first national DAR President while living in Washington, D.C.

The Oxford Female Institute and the Oxford Female College merged in 1867 and were re-chartered as the Oxford College for Women in 1906. In 1976, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and listed by its original name – Oxford Female Institute. The building served as a women’s dormitory until the mid-1980s when it was used to house graduate students. Miami University closed the building in 1998.

The OCAC web site notes the building provides a home for art entrepreneurs and enduring partners, and lists the following:

· 30+ individual studios for artists, writers, and musicians

· Miami University Performing Arts Series

· The Art Shop, a retail cooperative gallery run by local artists featuring a range of artworks in various mediums;

· The Oxford Area Community Theatre (OxACT), a community theatre group, performing since 1980;

· The Caroline Scott Players, a semi-professional theatre company, performing since 2015;

· Flowing Grace School of Dance, which teaches adults, teens, and children ballet, tap, jazz, and contemporary dance

· Daughters of the American Revolution-Caroline Scott Chapter

· Des Fleurs Garden Club

· Oxford Chamber Series

About the Author