Reading: It's Not Just Outlet Malls Anymore

Reading, Pa.'s GoggleWorks boasts a gallery (above), glass-blowing studio, along with dozens of resident artists, dance and choral groups and a movie theater.
Reading, Pa.'s GoggleWorks boasts a gallery (above), glass-blowing studio, along with dozens of resident artists, dance and choral groups and a movie theater. (By Matthew Mazurkiewicz)
By John Fidler
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On a recent Sunday at the GoggleWorks, a converted protective eyewear factory that is helping turn Reading, Pa., into a mid-Atlantic arts destination, you could see the following: pint-size ballerinas scampering beneath the oversize painted eyes in the parking lot; a teenage violinist accompanying a dancer's pirouettes in a second-floor studio; a 2,000-degree cavern of fire raging in the ground-floor glass-blowing studio; and lithographers, painters and sculptors hobnobbing with families, students and tourists.

"I didn't realize how much was here," said out-of-town visitor Stacey Thompson as her two kids mixed it up with the kooky whirligigs in the fifth-floor Outsider Folk Art Gallery, where touching the art is encouraged.

The kids had been happily entranced by the massive studio, performance and gallery facility for hours. Her husband, Doug, was amazed they weren't bugging him to move on.

"It's better than the mall," he said.

If you think all that Reading offers are outlet stores and Monopoly game railroads, think again. This once-gritty city is morphing into an arts hub, where a Keith Haring exhibit is drawing thousands at the local museum, blues and jazz acts tour through and a downtown coffeehouse features poetry readings and acoustic music. Not bad for a city better known for factories than high art.

Antiques lovers will find plenty of shops throughout Berks County. Baseball lovers will want to catch a Reading Phillies game. Top it off with a stay at one of Reading's historic inns and dinner at a hip Euro-style restaurant and you've got yourself a weekend.

At the center of the Reading renaissance is the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, an odd collection of vintage industrial buildings that once housed a bustling safety goggle factory. It opened last September as a place for artists to create not just in the seclusion of their studios, but in front of the public. Artists of all kinds are here, along with classrooms, several galleries and complete pottery, woodworking, photography and glass-blowing studios.

If you've visited the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria's successful workshop-turned-arts-thing, you already get the philosophy behind Reading's new facility. But what sets the GoggleWorks apart are the score of performing arts groups that call the place home, among them a ballet academy, music school and children's chorus. Where else can you eavesdrop on a new chorale being rehearsed, spy on young dancers working on their pliés and see a glass bowl take shape -- all in one place?

The center also has a cafe, a gift shop and a 135-seat movie theater that features independent and offbeat films. "Junebug" was the inaugural movie. Since then, such art-house favorites as "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Cache" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" have played. "L'Enfant" just opened, and "An Inconvenient Truth" begins on July 21.

A typical visit starts on the first floor, where special exhibits are mounted. Up for another month or so is a juried show of local artists. After that, an auction of GoggleWorks creations.

But once you've watched art in its finished form, it's time to watch art being made. On the other four floors, you can meet the artists and talk to them. This is art in progress: Wet clay bowls and molten glass vases droop, sketches in pencil become colorful oil and watercolor paintings.

Some pieces lie abandoned. Everywhere, brows furrow.

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