Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Build it and they might come: Center for the Performing Arts names Dunnes service award winners

By Heather Longley

Gay and Jim Dunne aim to create a better world. For decades, the Bellefonte residents have donated their time, money, and expertise toward preserving the region’s culture, architecture, and history. Their dedication to sensory beautification of the musical type earned the couple the 2018 Center for the Performing Arts Distinguished Service Award.

“Jim and Gay are most deserving of this award,” says center Director George Trudeau. The couple has supported the center since 2004, most often by funding events featuring music ensembles. “They are strong advocates for the center and the performing arts in our community,” he says.

Long before joining the Center for the Performing Arts as sponsors and prior to Gay’s stint as a member of the center’s Community Advisory Council, the now-retired dermatologists immersed themselves in beautifying their neighborhood.

The Dunnes’ acts of arts philanthropy started with the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s Sunday afternoon concert series. In 1981, Jim started to organize the events, which feature classical, bluegrass and jazz ensembles, barbershop choruses, and the occasional children’s and theatrical programs. In the mid-’80s, the Dunnes led a campaign to help fund the rebuild of a donated 1880s Steinway piano.

The couple spent years volunteering for various boards and organizations focused on the betterment of physical and intangible environments. Together and individually, they were active with local groups, including Bellefonte Borough Council, Bellefonte Area School Board, Nittany Valley Symphony, Palmer Museum of Art, and Bellefonte Garden Club. But their arts appreciation started at a young age.

“We had music in our household. My father would play in barbershop quartets; my sister played the piano. I wasn’t good enough to play the trumpet, so they directed me to the French horn,” Jim recalls.

He performed in orchestras as a medical school intern and with classical music ensembles when he returned from Philadelphia to his hometown of State College. He still performs with the Nittany Valley Symphony.

Gay’s experience with music also started as a child growing up outside of Erie. Her mother was a self-taught pianist, and the inclination rubbed off. “There were popular songs. My mother had a lot of sheet music to play that sort of went around classical music (but) not the classics,” she says.

Her lessons included playing cello and piano and continued into adulthood with instruction by Phyllis Triolo and Steve Smith. She also sang with the State College Choral Society.

“That was good preparation and support for when we would perform together in chamber groups,” Gay says.

The Dunnes also fostered the community’s appreciation for visual arts, including Jim’s duties as organizer or guest curator for exhibits at Gamble Mill and Bellefonte Art Museum.

For a number of years, the Dunnes operated Adam & Art Gallery in Bellefonte, an exhibition space they modeled after the Palmer Museum. Despite attracting people from the State College area to Bellefonte, the gallery was more a labor of love, and the couple closed up shop before renting it out to Penn State master of fine arts candidates.

Not to be deterred, the Dunnes founded the Film Forum screening-and-discussion evenings that took place at venues throughout Bellefonte, including the Garman Opera House and Centre County Library and Historical Museum.

“What we wanted to do was to create a cultural environment,” Gay says. “I was not pleased with coming here from Philadelphia, because I missed that cultural environment. And the best thing I could think of was to bring some of the art and the culture in because it all fits together so well. Music is good, art is good, film is good, and they do support each other.”

In addition to cultivating an appreciation for the arts, the Dunnes aimed to preserve the culture of Bellefonte. Jim and Gay, as a former member of the Bellefonte Borough Council and now of the borough’s Historic Architectural Review Board, dedicated their time to sustain Bellefonte’s relevance by maintaining a space representative of the past but open to the future.

“You have to preserve environments,” Gay says. “It’s not just the building. It’s the neighborhood, the landscaping.”

“It’s an economic benefit to Bellefonte,” Jim adds. “The architecture brings people in.”

And to Jim, as a member of the garden club, the group’s edible gardens, house tours, and daffodil-planting campaigns are ways of enhancing a space and molding a welcoming environment

Since 2004, the Dunnes have sponsored Center for the Performing Arts presentations that speak to their hearts—classical and contemporary music ensembles. But they admit that the artist they choose to sponsor, at times, has just been the luck of the draw.

Kronos Quartet, for example, who the couple sponsored in 2009, “is a group that is not likely to get here any other way. It’s a type of music that ... should come here," Gay says.

“One thing I like is the commissioning of new work. I think audiences should learn to appreciate commissioned, new works, because all contemporary, recently composed music is not the same,” she says. “I think audiences need to hear a diversity of things, not just those things that they can hum along to."

In recent years, they each have scaled back their volunteer commitments, but they still make time and set aside resources to help the center fund performances.

“There’s that sentiment about giving back and giving back and giving back,” Jim says. “We’re not giving back.”

“We’re not giving back,” Gay says in agreement. “We’re just giving.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.

Dunne sponsor history

2004–05: Elton John’s Aida

2005–06: Munich Symphony Orchestra

2006–07: violinist Joshua Bell and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

2007–08: Russian National Orchestra

2008–09: Guthrie Theater and The Acting Company in King Henry V

2009–10: Kronos Quartet

2010–11: pianist Jonathan Biss

2011–12: Irish Chamber Orchestra

2012–13: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra

2013–14: Apollo’s Fire: The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra

2014–15: Tafelmusik

2015–16: Windscape quintet

2017–18: Apollo’s Fire