Arts guru Susan Jennings: There's so much to offer that "you just can't take advantage of everything!"
Susan Jennings’ decades of involvement in the Roanoke Valley arts and cultural scene have included serving as the director of the Arts Council and her current post as Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Roanoke. She has also been the recipient of several awards, including the 2008 Perry Kendig Award for Outstanding Support of the Arts. While shying away from the term “expert,” she definitely has the experience to provide unique insight.
Overwhelmingly, Jennings wants people to know how vibrant the arts scene is in the valley. In short, she excitedly exclaims, “You just can’t take advantage of everything!”
What is most exciting is that the arts and cultural environment has now become bigger than the numerous institutions that sparked Roanoke’s Renaissance, which began a generation ago with the coming of Center in the Square. (Please see page 32 for a sneak preview of the reborn Center in the Square.)
“Some of the most exciting things are things that are happening from the ground up, not necessarily in an institution,” she says. “For example, there are PROject ProJECT and the Down by Downtown music festival, which grew out of people wanting to put resources together and market music as a package.”
In the context of our bounty of offerings, she says the focus should be on marketing and packaging what we have. “Collaboration and joint marketing are a key for finding success and showing that Roanoke and the Valley are the cultural hub of the region.”
It is the emergence of somewhat unique collaborations that Jennings sees as the true driving force behind the valley’s many successes in the arts. She points to Opera Roanoke, Southwest Virginia Ballet, Center in the Square, and others as organizations that have built strong collaborations.
The city’s new Arts and Cultural plan calls for building upon and forging new collaborations. For example, the city recently began a mini-grant program where applicants are required to have collaborators.
“This process brought together some unique groups where the arts are partnering with social service and preservation groups,” she says.
Jennings feels that Roanoke and its neighbors are fortunate to have so many venues in which music can thrive. In addition to the dozens of restaurants and bars showcasing musical talent on almost any given night, the Kirk Avenue Music Hall and the Jefferson Center host not only local and regional acts but also national and even international artists. Both venues offer truly exciting schedules each year that appeal to diverse musical senses. Reinforcing this exploration in music is the Jefferson Center’s Downtown Music Lab, a successful education program for the valley’s emerging musicians. Through the program national musicians can pass on advice and share their talents with students in the region.
The Roanoke Symphony is simply a crown jewel in the Roanoke music scene. Led by the talents of David Stewart Wiley and the vision of Beth Pline, the symphony provides the valley’s residents and guests an opportunity to explore classical and re-envisioned modern and contemporary works in an engaging manner. Jennings is particularly excited about the symphony’s upcoming move to downtown. Through this move the symphony will “have a storefront presence where even David Wiley’s piano will be in the window!” She notes how this complements the City’s Public Art Program by taking art into the streets.
Of course, with the opening of the Taubman Museum of Art and its related struggles, the fine arts have gained much attention over the past few years. Despite the challenges of architectural taste, huge deficits and whether or not you want Roanoke to become another Charlotte, the heart and soul of the museum, according to Jennings, is the actual art in its collection. Roanoke was fortunate to receive the Peggy Macdowell Thomas collection. The collection contains a wealth of treasures, including four paintings by Thomas Eakins, notable works by Susan Macdowell Eakins, and a large collection of works on paper, family photographs and family documents.
Augmented through the generous donations of Heywood Fralin, the Taubman Museum has an American collection that is arguably the strongest collection of American art in southwest Virginia.
Close to Jennings’ heart is the Taubman Museum’s ArtVenture. Through her volunteer work with the Junior League of the Roanoke Valley she established the first ArtVenture in the Art Museum of Western Virginia in the 1990s. While it has changed from its original concept, she notes that it is an “engaging, hands-on visual art experience for children.”
The region is also extremely fortunate to have the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum, located on the campus of Hollins University, and Roanoke College’s Olin Galleries. While the Wilson Museum has some wonderful works tied to its permanent collection, Jennings notes that a major strength of the museum is its ability to engage the community. Under the leadership of Amy Moorefield, the Wilson Museum has developed a highly successful program where artists can not only teach classes at Hollins but also share their work and experiences with the community at large.
“Amy is bringing in fantastic artists who are involved with the students and community,” Jennings says. “She is collaborating with extra-regional agencies.” A recent example is the museum’s Warhol exhibition that witnessed collaboration between the Wilson Museum, Roanoke College, and Washington and Lee.
As for the Olin Galleries, they are currently unveiling the result of their participation in the worldwide Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project. This collaborative exhibition, involving people from the community crocheting pieces of two larger coral reef replicas, is on view now at the Olin Galleries. One creation replicates a multicolored reef while the other reproduces a bleached reef. Jennings points out that yet again this is another creative project involving community and collaboration – and “it is an opportunity for a local organization to be tied to a global artistic effort.”
Not to go unnoticed is the Harrison Museum, scheduled to open in Center in the Square after its renovations are complete. The Harrison Museum’s work with the Henry Street Festival has allowed Roanoke to highlight local talents with its Roanoke’s Got Talent program at Henry Street, showcasing local performers and artists.
Of course, as is the case with much of the nation, the arts scene in the valley has not been all blue skies and roses. Possibly most noteworthy was when Mill Mountain Theater had to shut down. However, there is a glimmer of hope as Mill Mountain reinvents itself and reopens with a “strong strategic plan.” Jennings is optimistic about Mill Mountain.
“Mill Mountain reopening should give everybody some hope that the arts can endure, adapt, and survive with the right people and the right plan,” she says.
On a similar note, Studio Roanoke was forced to close its doors in 2012. Yet not all was lost. Jennings is excited by the fact that the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins has some of the individuals that had been involved with Studio Roanoke.
“A lot of the same people doing first run, original plays are now at Hollins doing that work – so yes, we lost Studio Roanoke but retained the mission allowing for original works to remain in the Valley,” Jennings says.
One of the shining stars in the performing arts is Roanoke Children’s Theatre (RCT). Housed at the Taubman Museum of Art, reflecting another important collaboration, Roanoke Children’s Theatre offers professional theater for children, allowing the region’s children the opportunity to participate in not only theatrical classes but also to audition for and perform in plays geared toward children.
Yet the opportunities for children are not limited to theater and the fine arts. As Jennings points out, “Students here also have great opportunities in the dance world. Roanoke Ballet Theatre as a nonprofit dance school does not turn any student away, and Southwest Virginia Ballet offers pre-professional dance training at no cost to the students from all dance schools. Many of their students have gone on to perform at the national and international level.”
As if this is not enough, Jennings points out that the valley’s residents should also take advantage of the many fine cultural institutions residing alongside the many arts venues. The History Museum of Western Virginia, the Salem Museum and Historical Society, the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Virginia Museum of Transportation all offer wonderful educational opportunities for families.
“Combine all the arts and cultural offerings with the outdoors initiatives in the valley and there is no better place to find all the educational and recreational opportunities you could want,” says Jennings. I