Arts: Cain Center Opens in Cornelius
New arts destination bills itself as "the Lake Norman region’s new home for inspiration, creativity, and community."
Cornelius loves going out.
The population has doubled since 2000, making it easier for residents to fill up the patios at Harp & Crown and Hello, Sailor. They gab and play ping pong for hours while patiently waiting their turn on the microphone at Saeed’s, where you can still sing karaoke every single day of the year. They are present and accounted for in support of the local bluegrass musicians and rock bands who show up to play at Old Town Public House and Tropicana.
Folks in Cornelius have energy and appreciation to spare, and the town is meeting the need with a brand new arts and cultural center.
The Cain Center for the Arts celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, January 7. The event was headlined by Renee Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton’s original Angelica Schuyler, who had members from her Mecklenburg County family in the audience.
Cain Center for the Arts
21348 Catawba Ave, Cornelius, NC 28031
Hours vary; visit cainarts.org for schedule
Discussion around access to the arts began in Cornelius government nearly two decades ago, and funding for a cultural district with an arts exhibition and educational space as its centerpiece was overwhelmingly approved by Cornelius voters in a 2013 referendum.
As highlighted by Cornelius Today, Cornelius town officials turned to Salisbury, a Charlotte exurb where local art is thriving. Former Cornelius Mayor Lynette Rinker said, “When we were in Salisbury, I asked them what their secret sauce was. The answer was to ‘spark the imagination of the entrepreneurs and let the market do its thing.’”
Good advice wasn’t the only thing the Lake Norman town brought home from their visit to Salisbury. Cain Center Executive Director Justin Dionne, who came on board in 2017 when the concept was still in development, is a Catawba College alum and Salisbury native. Dionne helped to conceive of and develop Salisbury’s Lee Street Theatre. He told me that the small theater company arose organically.
“Lee Street Theatre began in Robert Jones’s living room with a group of friends that wanted to create a place where everyone could do great theater and enjoy time together while doing it,” he said.
As Lee Street’s managing artistic director, Dionne led a $1.5 million campaign to transform a historic space into the theater it is today. Their forward-thinking programming and loyal local audience make it the rare example of homegrown arts done right. The Cain Center hopes to become another such success with Dionne at the helm.
While the Cain Center celebrated the opening of its new building in downtown Cornelius this month, it has cultivated its relationships with the community for years, using spaces in the nearby Oak Street Mill for exhibits, performances, and education. In the new building, plenty of entertainment will be available for Cornelius audiences. There will be regular events and performances in their 400-seat theater. The new gallery will host a variety of artists, including Hot Glass Alley’s Jake Pfeifer whose blown glass work is on display there now. Ceramics, visual art, and music classes with the organization have been available for years and will continue in their new studios.
The Community Music Program, first offered in 2020, provides voice, guitar, or piano education to local kids aged seven to eighteen at no charge. Students are committed to regular attendance over a year of classes and two live performances. Having completed the class, they receive an instrument of their own to keep.
As a part of their community outreach efforts, the Cain Center partners with the nearby Neighborhood C.A.R.E. and Ada Jenkins Centers. The Cain Center’s relationships with these organizations allow them to spread the word about their resources and inclusive programming. These partnerships are just one aspect of Dionne’s understanding of the arts’ organic place in the Lake Norman Community.
With the Cain Center only open a few days, Dionne told me that a couple teenagers wandered into the building before realizing where they were. The kids encountered the young Executive Director and apologized for intruding, before he chuckled and assured them that they were in a community space that will always welcome them. He offered to show them around.
“This is yours,” he told them.
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