By the late 1960s, the need for a location to house the burgeoning fine and performing arts at Muhlenberg was great. According to a fundraising brochure for the Center for the Arts, “the arts are flourishing in spite of--not because of--the physical facilities provided for them.” The Art Department was housed in the old Dining Commons (now Walson) , the Music Department was located in a former private residence, and theatre performances for the two clubs--the Mask & Dagger and Muhlenberg Experimental Theatre--were typically held in the large dining room in Seegers Union.
In the words of Rev. Paul C. Empie ‘29, who served as chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1972 until his death in 1979, “...setting is important when it comes to the fine arts. Atmosphere, acoustics, aesthetic factors--these and other aspects of the facilities in which students engage in the search for meaning contribute toward a successful outcome. And style is worth something. A ‘fine arts’ center which looks like a field house would be to some extent counter-productive.”
As the second phase of a capital campaign begun in 1968, a center for the fine arts was commissioned. On October 13, 1971, the Board of Trustees approved the design for the new Fine Arts Center. According to President John Morey, the building would add a “new and magnetic educational dimension” to the campus. “From its inception we have envisioned the center as something deeper in educational impact than a building housing fine arts facilities. Our purpose is to generate an added dimension in the liberal education of every Muhlenberg student, regardless of his or her field of study.”
The design for the fine arts center was created by world-renowned architect Philip Johnson of Johnson & Burgee, NYC, in association with Coston-Wallace-Watson of Bethlehem (now the W2A Design Group), Muhlenberg’s long-range planning architects. The building is believed to have been inspired by the Sculpture Gallery on the grounds of Johnson’s estate in New Canaan, Connecticut.
The site was dedicated on Wednesday, May 22, 1974. In addition to housing the departments of art, music, and English, which still reside within, the arts center provides art gallery space, rehearsal rooms, art studios, and a theatre. Classrooms, seminar rooms, and lecture halls are spread throughout, and the design is tied together by the 220-foot, 45-degree sloping “galleria” that runs from Chew Street through towards Cedar Creek, descending over thirteen feet from top to bottom.
On September 8, 1976, the College held its first formal event in the Center for the Arts, Opening Convocation. A selection of works by Alexander Calder served as the first exhibition showcased in the new facility. The first theatre production in the new Center, in the fall of 1976, was The Taming of the Shrew, the first ever production of the Muhlenberg Theatre Association (MTA).
In 1983, the theatre within the Center for the Arts was christened the Paul C. Empie Theatre, in honor of the building’s champion.
The Martin Art Gallery was dedicated in 1984 to the late Frank Martin, fourteen-year member of the Board of Trustees and advocate for the construction of a fine arts center for Muhlenberg. The gallery is the repository for nearly 10,000 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, prints, works on paper, photographs, Navajo rugs, African artifacts, and ceramics. All exhibitions are free and open to the public.
In late 1991, long-time supporters of the arts at Muhlenberg, Dorothy and Dexter Baker of Allentown, announced a $1 million gift to continue their support of students by way of scholarships, and to establish a performing artist-in-residence program. Dorothy Baker was a member of the Board of Trustees, and Dexter Baker Chairman and CEO of Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. The Dorothy and Dexter Baker Center for the Arts was renamed in honor of this gift.