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Change of venue
One of the main stages for big-name entertainment acts in the area, the Wells Fargo Center is shifting its image

  • Richard Nowlin, the executive director of the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, plans the next honorary board meeting with Robin Seltzer, the director of development. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Just north of Santa Rosa, on Highway 101, stands the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, where passing motorists can see the big sign that lists coming attractions.

Drivers might be impressed to see that singer and pianist Diana Krall is coming back, amused to learn that '50s pop star Paul Anka is still touring, or mildly bewildered by the message, “Host your holiday party here!”

The announcement in June of the center's 31st season, opening Wednesday with ZZ Top, drew mixed reviews. Online comments ranged from, “It's great to have big acts,” to suggestions that some of the acts belonged at a county fair or even a farmers market.

Those opinions lead to broader debate about whether the center — founded in 1981 as the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts — is rising, falling or simply changing. The center's current management says the center is about much more than big names on the marquee.

The center made its name on big-ticket, high-energy acts like Donna Summer and Elvis Costello. It still books the likes of Sheryl Crow and Seal, although some would say with less fanfare. But it's aiming to change its public image, playing up its role as a community and cultural center, particularly now as the new Green Music Center comes to life.

“A lot of people drive by, they see what's on the sign and that's their perception of what happens within these walls,” said Richard Nowlin, the center's executive director since 2007. “One of the biggest challenges we have is for the community to really understand the breadth and depth of what we do.”

Anniversary video

Well Fargo Center's nearly nine-minute promotional video, hosted by actress Rita Moreno and produced to mark last year's 30th anniversary, deals with the big names in the first 30 seconds or so, then moves on.

Most of the video deals with the center's community and educational programs — staging family shows, sending visiting artists into local classrooms, providing teachers with arts resources that supplement their regular curriculum and even supplying instruments to music students in need.

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