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Spotlight shines on Chatfield Center for the Arts

By Julie Fryer, July 19, 2023

Potter Auditorium hosts a range of performing arts events. The Chatfield Center for the Arts is shooting for 100 shows in the coming year. (Photo courtesy of Chatfield Center for the Arts)

Spotlight shines on Chatfield Center for the Arts


CHATFIELD – The vision started more than 13 years ago: to build a regional center for arts in Chatfield, a town with an already burgeoning theater and music scene. Planners dreamed of a space designed for arts and entertainment that would offer a complete experience for patrons and performers alike. In 2023, they opened the curtain on a renovated, state-of-the-art venue with room for music, theater, art, and even wedding receptions. 

From funding to construction oversight to programming, the new Chatfield Center for the Arts (CCA) brings together a unique partnership of the City of Chatfield and its Economic Development Authority (EDA); the CCA non-profit and its local board; and local music and theater groups such as the Wit’s End Theater. Together they deftly managed an historical building-wide renovation while maintaining programming during a global pandemic. That seems like a handful–because it is!   

While the bulk of the project was planned before Covid-19 hit, the safety protocols added an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging job. But art waits for no one and through imaginative programming, the CCA crew hosted shows in church basements, libraries, and even virtually, garnering viewers from as far away as England. Now back to a full schedule, the board is shooting for 100 shows in the coming year and planning for 4 out of every 5 weekends with a performance.

While patrons already know they’ll find world class programming here, this renovation’s intricate attention to detail and historical accuracy, is a viewing experience all of its own. No space was left untouched and user experience is built into every corner of this multi-use building.

The 1916 school and 1936 auditorium have been newly renovated into Chatfield Center for the Arts, equipped with a state of the art performance venue, classrooms, and community meeting space. (Photo by Julie Fryer)


Historic Architecture and Modern Amenities Take Center Stage.

As Mike Speck, CCA Operations Director, sat down in his new, light-filled office, he closed the door mentioning that the new HVAC and lighting system has high-efficiency zones so energy is only used in spaces occupied by people. Looking over piles of scripts and building plans, Speck quickly ran down the list of how each piece of renovation was carefully chosen to improve the performance experience. From entryways and gathering places redesigned for better crowd flow to a fully stocked art studio for community classes to event rental spaces with a catering kitchen and full accessibility; every user will find something to love.

 “One of the least obvious but most impactful things we did was tripling the bathroom space in the building,” Speck recounts. “We can now have normal intermissions without waiting for the bathroom line to clear out.”

A stunning atrium joins the old school with Potter Auditorium creating a lobby where people gather before and after performances. (Photo by Julie Fryer)

The most visible renovation, a new stunning Atrium, greets visitors as soon as they enter the building. Floor to ceiling windows frame both ends of this building-wide space just outside the auditorium’s interior doors. A second story skyway connects visitors to the elevators and upstairs gathering spaces. Replacing the former narrow walkway between the 1916 building and the 1936 George H. Potter Auditorium, the Atrium opens into a large gathering area for performers and patrons to visit before and after shows. Modern metal and glass elements join with the vintage brick and wood, creating a beautifully lit space that adds a touch of Broadway to this small-town theater.  

Wit’s End President and Chatfield High School Speech and Drama coach, Rachel Schieffelbein, offers unique insight into the new space. Currently working on the upcoming “Hello Dolly” production, Scheiffelbein says: “The atrium space has worked wonderfully as an area to connect with the audience. We can put our box office there, have our cast meet-and-greets there. It’s really a beautiful space.”

Not to take back stage, the building’s early 19th century architecture shines through both buildings. Everything that could be saved or refurbished was including the vintage light fixtures still hanging in the auditorium; massive molding that hugs the ceilings and floors; unique metalwork gracing interior windows and doors; and the original wood floors now polished to a high sheen. The renovation also uncovered three skylights in the upper level. A local manufacturer painstakingly recreated window panels to fit these openings along with historically accurate, but energy efficient, windows for the 1916 building. 

An Investment in the Arts for Generations to Come.

Since 2014, State of Minnesota legislative allocations and local donors have funded two renovations on these buildings. The first phase of construction cost $5.3M and focused on immediate Potter Auditorium structural needs including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and general mechanical improvements. The first phase also concentrated on much-needed theater space improvements including all new main floor seating, lighting, and sound; installation of new windows and an elevator; and adding a new green room.

While this work greatly improved the existing theater space, the second round of funding provided the $8.7M needed to fully finish the project. During the second phase, work focused on remodeling and improvements to the 1916 building; building the connecting Atrium; adding better accessibility features; and upgrading exterior spaces.

Performing on the Potter Auditorium stage since age 13, Chatfield High School senior, Nicholas Long says, “The renovations have brought the building alive once again. Not only is it beautiful, it is all practical in its purpose! I am particularly grateful for the new open space upstairs. That space was used as the rehearsal area for Joe Chase’s “Lincoln” play I appeared in last fall. Not only did we have enough room to practice, there was enough room to seat the remaining cast, a few extra tables, and a corner in which I could frustratingly do my pre-calc homework.”

Ongoing programming is also funded by the Minnesota Legacy Act, the City of Chatfield, donations to the CCA non-profit, and ticket and concession sales. Each ticket to a show helps pay for more programming. Every performance held at CCA depends on a network of dedicated local volunteers who manage concessions, sell tickets and assist with ushering, and even step in as stagehands or spotlight operators when needed. It’s a rare sight to see school-age kids choosing live theater over TikTok videos but Chatfield has bucked that trend. The community-wide and inclusive efforts by the CCA continues to draw people of all ages, keeping the arts alive and growing a new generation of future performers!

The Art Room offers community members opportunities to pursue their creative interests in arts and crafts. (Photo by Julie Fryer)


More Than Just Stage Shows, A Gathering Space for the Region.

By the numbers, Chatfield Center for the Arts is a powerhouse of an entertainment facility and typically hosts 10,000 visitors per year with guests coming from all over the Midwest and from as far away as Alaska. The steps of Potter Auditorium have hosted hundreds of graduation celebrations and, most notably, a visit from President Obama in 2011 where the Valleyland Summer Camp kids piled around him for a good-hearted summer afternoon. 

Planners also kept an eye towards making the new space usable for everyone in the community with multi-purpose rooms for small and large event gatherings; for arts, crafts, and yoga classes; for local nonprofit boardroom space; for art exhibitions; and so much more. Seating capacity varies from 650 in a full Potter Auditorium to 200 for the Back Stage area to 80 for the Legion Room. The upstairs gathering space has access to a full catering kitchen and can comfortably seat 150 people for dinner. All of these spaces are open for rentals. 

The experience doesn’t end at the door, though, as designers transformed the formerly industrial-looking back parking lot into a lovely green space complete with an outdoor deck and stage with food-truck specific accommodations and landscaping that extends around the building as it overlooks City Park and busy Highway 52. One bonus during construction was the opportunity to partner with the City of Chatfield and People’s Energy to install two of the three EV chargers in Chatfield. 

What’s Next on the Playbill?

In early August, Wit’s End Theater presents its annual summer play, this year choosing the musical, “Hello Dolly”. Traditionally these plays draw talent from all over the area and give local actors, stage hands, costumers, and musicians a chance to entertain their community. Performed in conjunction with Chatfield Western Days celebration, tickets sell out quickly. 

As the renovations have wrapped up and life has returned to somewhat normal, the Chatfield Center for the Arts board has been busy planning new shows for the 2023-24 season with internationally known artists and local favorites already booked.


Visit Chatfield Center for the Arts to rent space, book tickets, join a class, or make a donation.



Julie Fryer is a marketing and writing consultant who helps small businesses navigate the world of ecommerce. She lives in Chatfield and is an avid gardener, sugarmaker, and camper with a full bookshelf of to-be-read books.

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