The Empire Arts Center in downtown Grand Forks turns 100 years old this November. First launched as a movie theater, the space has undergone structural, strategic and artistic change in the past century. Today, the facility hosts more than 30,000 visitors per year and showcases Broadway stars, regional actors and budding young musicians in front of a vintage-inspired theater-setting capable of seating 400 people. Emily Montgomery, executive director, and Mackenzie Teepen, director of operations, share the same perspective on the longevity and successful run of the historic center. The one constant throughout the years, they say, is magic.
“This is a place where arts and culture meet,” Teepen says. “We provide people with the opportunity to be creative.”
In 1959, the center officially chose to use the phrase, “Empire,” including the iconic circle light bulb sign that is still present today. Montgomery and her team are showing old photos of the site on social media this year to commemorate the 100-year milestone. The old photos reveal a different time, when flashing marquee signs and fabric overhangs were placed above every store on Demers Avenue between the Empire Theatre and the bridge. The Empire, at least in the photos from 1959, didn’t appear to stand out from its surroundings like it does today. Later this year, the team will host a gathering with the community to celebrate the Empire’s ability to stand out in the modern era.
For the majority of its life, the center acted as a movie theater but in 1998, the leadership group of volunteers and others running the facility chose to take a new direction. The center is now a home for the arts that offers a setting for Broadway style productions, musical events, intimate gatherings and to some lucky brides, a rentable space for picturesque weddings. As the only non-university location offering art from the University of North Dakota’s art collection, the Empire displays an impressive and inspiring assemblage of paintings, sculptures and other artistic works in the main lobby and waiting area of the facility. It is hard not to turn in circles standing in line for a play or production with so much beauty on the walls. This year, Montgomery and her team are allocating funds to update the front area and art display potential in the lobby.
Teepen, a non-Grand Forks native that previously worked with non-profits in the arts space prior to taking her role with the Empire, says she was surprised at the support the community gives to the arts and the Empire. Roughly 300 nights per year the Empire is hosting some kind of event, either through its production company or with a renting partner. There is an impressive volunteer board that helps guide the success of the facility and navigate into a new era of show production and financial well-being. Montgomery, Teepen and all of the volunteers are constantly looking for new ways to get more from the Empire while they constantly work through the general maintenance issues associated with owning the building. The Empire Arts Center owns the building. “We really strive for excellence,” Teepen says. After 100 years in operation, the duo knows they have a big job in maintaining the Empire’s place as an arts, culture and historical downtown Grand Forks mecca. Neither pauses in answering how they’ll achieve excellence or keep the flashing lights of the Empire a fixture for the next century. Teepen laughs even, and without saying it, seems to indicate with her slight smile and shoulder shrug that another 100 years is almost a foregone conclusion because they know, like the other 30,000-plus people that visit the Empire every year know, everything in the facility—the burgundy seats, the 75-feet of stage, the tall black curtains and even the hidden tunnels that supposedly run under the theater—is magic. G
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PHOTOS BY: MANSTROM PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 3, 2019