Arts & Events

The Movement to Preserve Local Art and #SaveTheGrand!

The Grand Cinema, housed in the Merlino Building, is currently raising money to buy its building and save their theater. Photo Credit: Camknows CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Caitlin Yoder

  The Merlino Arts Center is home to many small businesses and independent artists, including The Grand Cinema, a non-profit, community-based theater that has been a staple of the Tacoma art community since 1997. The Grand screens all kinds of films (independent, international, local, and first-run), hosts events such as the Tacoma Film Festival, and supports other small businesses by serving locally-made/sourced refreshments. They are committed to sharing the “art of film” with the greater Tacoma community. According to their website, The Grand aims to “deepen compassion and understanding; honor freedom of expression; challenge and dismantle systemic oppression; create environments enriched with diverse views and people; and help the development of socially responsible leaders and citizens.” In the spirit of offering these educational and enriching experiences to all, they keep ticket prices low and admit students of Tacoma schools free entry for most films they show, with the help of Tacoma Creates. (University students: all the more reason to go!).

  Unfortunately, The Grand is at risk of closure due to problems brought on by COVID, with outside developers currently looking to buy the Merlino building. Historically, this has meant the end of independent theaters, especially non-profits like The Grand. That’s why they’ve created the #SaveTheGrand Movement in hopes of raising enough money to buy the building themselves. Once they do, they can ensure they will not be forced to close and can better support themselves and the other businesses that have coexisted in the building for years.

  Buying the Merlino Arts Center will not only provide stability and a future for The Grand, but also for the other residents of the building, including Corina Bakery, Tacoma City Ballet, Violent Delights Tattoo Club, a Tai Chi studio and many independent art studios, all of which contribute to Tacoma’s rich art culture. Philip Cowan, Executive Director of the Grand, says The Grand and the surrounding businesses have a reciprocal, communal relationship, and highlighted how important it was for a city to have walkable spaces like this. “It kind of creates this little pod of business and things going on right around here that the people live around here to get some place to walk to,” he says. “The more of these that you get, the more atmosphere that you have, being able to move from one place to another.” This speaks to the community-forward philosophy of The Grand, and how crucial it is to the broader Tacoma ecosystem.

  The Grand is well-loved by many, but it can be difficult for a small independent theater to compete for attention with the big cineplex giants like Cinemark or AMC. The Grand draws a specific but dedicated fan base. “So the biggest thing for us is, most people have either loved The Grand or never heard of The Grand,” Cowan says. When entering the space, I was struck by how much history had been packed in after only 27 years. Cowan was as excited to talk with The Trail, and spoke of his humble theater with evident love and excitement.

  Cowan highlighted the theater’s commitment to showing movies that bigger theaters won’t. “There’s maybe 20% of the films that we play, you might catch someplace else,” Cowan says. He went on to say that the “stuff that we show you’re not gonna see in Pierce County anywhere else.” 

  Cowan also shared the mailing campaign sent out on the day of our interview, which is expected to reach some 8,000 people. This and another upcoming campaign are only two of several fundraising efforts #SaveTheGrand has engaged in, including applications for grants and the annual 253 Short Film festival coming soon on May 10. Held each year at Urban Grace: The Downtown Church, the 253 Short Film Competition tasks 30 local filmmaking teams with making a short film of 253 seconds or shorter, with 72 hours to produce it. Later that week, the community is invited to come watch the films and celebrate the competitors. The 253 Festival, and the many other community events the Grand provides, are all at risk of ending if they are unable to buy the Merlino building. 

  To contribute to the future of this staple of Tacoma, go to And tell your friends! So many people, including its most die-hard fans, didn’t know The Grand was at risk of closing. Spreading awareness about the #SaveTheGrand Movement will help ensure that they can continue to enrich the greater Tacoma community through the art of film indefinitely.