The Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts is a non-profit arts center that opened in 1990 and is located in historic downtown Gadsden, Etowah County. It is directed by the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation and typically hosts more than 100,000 people annually.
The nonprofit Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation was founded in May 1984 and is governed by a volunteer board of 15 members. The organization remodeled a former Belk-Hudson department store at the corner of Fifth and Broad Streets in 1990. The building is notable for its distinctive triangular roof and large cylindrical form over the front entrance. The Arts Foundation is funded by the city of Gadsden, the Alabama State Council on the Arts, grants, corporate and private donations, and revenue raised from admission to the Hardin Center and fees for classes and programming. The center also raises money through rental space available for community events and private functions.
The Hardin Center hosts exhibits from all genres of the visual arts in three galleries that showcase regional and national traveling exhibitions. Exhibits change several times each year; there is no permanent collection. In addition, the Hardin Center produces and sponsors concerts and performing arts events throughout the year. The Courtyard Concert Series, for instance, runs April through September and provides a venue for local talent in the Hardin Center's New Orleans-style outdoor courtyard, which features gas lamps, plantings, fountains, and trompe l'oeil murals.
The Hardin Center complex also includes Imagination Place Children's Museum, a hands-on environment in which children learn through experiential play. Imagination Place is located next door to the Hardin Center's main building in the historic Kyle Building, the oldest standing commercial structure in downtown Gadsden. Its main exhibit is a child-sized town that includes a bank, grocery store, doctor's office, construction site, and veterinary clinic. Children are encouraged to use their imaginations to explore elements from the adult world at a child's scale. Imagination Place also includes a toddler play area and a science hall with changing educational exhibits. Staff also develop and oversee special camps, activities, and programs, both inside the Children's Museum and through outreach in area schools.
The Gadsden Community School for the Arts, housed inside the Hardin Center, provides many forms of arts instruction to more than 400 students each week, including ballet, all types of string, brass, and percussion instruments, painting, drawing, and ceramics. The Hardin Center's Etowah Youth Orchestras consist of five full performing ensembles composed of area youth. The award-winning groups perform many concerts each year and have toured many U.S. cities, as well as Costa Rica and England. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers has ranked the Etowah Youth Orchestras among the top three youth orchestra programs in the country. The Coosa Valley Model Railroad, created and maintained by the Coosa Valley Model Railroad Association, occupies a permanent spot on the Hardin Center's second floor. This 1,500-square-foot model is a replica of Gadsden in the 1940s. It consists of working trains and tells the history of Gadsden through built-to-scale miniature structures.