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Cornell Complex: Setting the stage for a dream  

The Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex in Joplin officially opens  

Nov. 23, 2022

The 37,000 square-foot facility brings performing and visual arts together in one place.

A dream 15 years in the making came true in November 2022, when the Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex officially opened.    

Known affectionately as the Cornell Complex, the 37,000-square-foot center is a destination for arts and cultural tourism in downtown Joplin. It’s the new home of Connect2Culture, Joplin’s community arts agency as recognized by the Missouri Arts Council, and George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, Joplin’s first arts center with ties to the 1940s. Both organizations are agency partners of the Joplin Regional Community Foundation.   

Between the two organizations that now call it home – Connect2Culture focusing on performing arts, and Spiva on visual arts – the Cornell Complex offers a new place to celebrate the arts through indoor and outdoor theaters, galleries, shared spaces, places to gather, and more.   

“Fifteen years ago, local arts organization leaders came together and decided they wanted to help each other and not view each other as competitors,” says Sharon Beshore, president of the Cornell Complex and chair of both Connect2Culture and the Missouri Arts Council. “They wanted to collaborate and said, ‘Let’s work together to make things happen for the arts.’” 

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The Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex in Joplin opened in November 2022. (Image courtesy of Connect2Culture)

More than $19 million was raised through the capital campaign, which was administered through multiple funds held with the CFO and the Joplin Regional Community Foundation. The spectrum of needs was wide: The funds are structured to support the construction work, operating expenses, an endowment for future support, donor-designated gifts, and a charitable lead unitrust (CLUT) also helps provide long-term maintenance to the facility. 

“People really got on board – businesses, individuals, foundations, organizations. It’s all about people leading this effort and their relationship with others, or people who have a passion,” says Clifford Wert, treasurer of the Cornell Complex. “By building a visual and performing arts center, people from both constituencies came together, along with community members who knew the economic impact it would have.”

More than 350 donors contributed to the project, including the late Harry M. Cornell, Jr., Beshore’s father, who made the $5 million lead naming gift for the facility in December 2017. 

“The whole community came together, supported it, and are really excited,” Beshore says.  

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Sharon Beshore is president of the Cornell Complex and chair of both Connect2Culture and the Missouri Arts Council. (Image courtesy of Connect2Culture)

Building a dream  

A local economic summit in 2007, which included discussion around the arts, helped set the stage for the new center.

“I was one of the moderators for that and asked the question, ‘What do we really need for the arts in Joplin?’ There were several arts organizations and leaders there,” Beshore says. “It was determined that we needed a performance space that could be used by a variety of groups.”

Plans grew through listening sessions and a committee with the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, leading to the creation of Connect2Culture as a nonprofit in 2011. The Phase I professional feasibility study was completed in December 2010. However, about six months later in May 2011, the historic Joplin EF5 tornado tore through town, putting plans for the center on hold.

“We knew with the tornado we needed to hold off doing anything because the priority was getting Joplin and its people back on its feet,” Beshore says.

Four years later, the effort restarted, and the Phase II professional feasibility study was completed in September 2016. The capital campaign officially began in 2017; at the time, donors already had given $363,000 towards seeding the effort.

A memorandum of understanding was put in place between the City of Joplin and Connect2Culture through a public-private partnership. The MOU secured the land for the facility: If at least $14 million was raised by July 1, 2018, the city would donate the land where it would sit.

The goal was achieved. In February 2021, officials broke ground on the project. Less than two years later, the Cornell Complex officially opened in early November 2022.  

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Clifford Wert is treasurer of the Cornell Complex. (Image courtesy of Connect2Culture)

Visiting the complex  

The complex is located in the heart of Joplin’s downtown district, complete with historic buildings reminiscent of a vintage postcard.   

The modern, three-story Cornell Complex — with large panes of glass to let natural light in during the day and radiate light out at night — appears a beacon.  

The facility’s state-of-the-art Beshore Performance Hall is one of its defining spaces. With tiered seating for 435 attendees that also can be converted to a flat-floor configuration, its state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems are acoustically designed to support performances with or without amplification. The multifunctional stage also links both the indoor seating and an outdoor amphitheater with room for 1,500.

In its role as the Joplin community’s performing arts presenter, Connect2Culture will present more than 16 performances for the inaugural season at the Cornell Complex. The 2022–23 season features a variety of performances, including: Christmas with the Annie Moses Band, an ensemble of Juilliard-trained siblings; Call of the Wild: Illustrated Edition, the classic children’s book brought to life on stage; Second City Swipes Right: An Incomplete Guide to the Ultimate Date Night, performed by the popular improv troupe; and Jessica Vosk, a singer and actress who is well known as Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway.

“We get significant underwriting so we can lower the ticket price to our performances and make them accessible and affordable,” Beshore says. 

Spiva has many exhibitions scheduled for its four galleries at the Cornell Complex, including an exhibition of 91 lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton opening March 4. PhotoSpiva, the longest-running photographic competition of its kind in the United States, opens March 18.  

Adaptability is key in many spaces of the complex to make it an effective setting for a wide range of arts events, as well as receptions, trade shows, galas and other special community gatherings. The facility also is filled with outdoor terraces and classrooms, offices, shared spaces, and galleries.

“The Cornell Complex is designed to accommodate just about any type of performance or exhibit,” Wert says.    

By Kaitlyn McConnell, writer in residence for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks

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