Build it and they might come

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — 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 at Penn State Distinguished Service Award.

“Jim and Gay are most deserving of this award,” said center Director George Trudeau. “They are strong advocates for the center and the performing arts in our community.” 

 The couple has supported the center since 2004, most often by funding events featuring music ensembles. 

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, the 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 said, chuckling.

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 said.

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 said.

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 said. “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. Gay, as a former member of the Bellefonte Borough Council and now of the borough’s Historic Architectural Review Board, and Jim 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 said. “It’s not just the building. It’s the neighborhood, the landscaping.”

“It’s an economic benefit to Bellefonte,” Jim added. “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 said.

“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 said. “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 said. “We’re not giving back.”

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

Dunnes 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

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Last Updated May 02, 2018