The Taubman Museum
The Taubman Museum in downtown Roanoke.
It is difficult to generalize the state of the arts in the Roanoke Valley because when you look around, the first thing you see is the $66 million Taubman Museum of Arts and 100 yards away the newly-renovated ($28 or $32 million, depending on whom you ask) Center in the Square. Down the road in Blacksburg is the spectacular – and brand new – Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech ($100 million). Live theater has rarely been stronger than it is now and both the Roanoke Symphony and Opera Roanoke are setting records for stability and attendance. The two civic centers – one in Salem, one in Roanoke – have rarely been more successful and the Jefferson Center is setting a national standard for showcasing quality music acts.
Arts and culture in the Roanoke Valley is hardly a sickly child, but it is not the robust adult it was a decade ago when the state poured nearly $4 million a year into its coffers. Still, there are pockets of prosperity and even some spectacular successes.
“What I notice about the arts here is that there is a healthy appreciation citywide for art. At times, Roanoke reminds me of places like Taos, N.M., and Sedona, Ariz. – artist enclaves whose populations participate at whatever level [they] can. I believe Roanoke has the ability to be an art destination like those cities.”
That’s Andrea Shreeman talking. She’s a Los Angeles-based moviemaker in town to film “It’s a Good Day To Die,” her “end-of-life comedy.” She’s well-traveled, sophisticated in these matters and she’s a Roanoke native. She cares about arts and culture and pays close attention to her surroundings because her livelihood depends on that awareness.
Beth Doughty, director of the Roanoke Valley Economic Development Partnership, is up on the arts, too: “Quality of life is hugely important in attracting talent and investment to your community. Arts and culture are front and center in the quality of life discussion. It’s part of an expectation that people have of what makes somewhere a great place to live. That said, the arts and cultural community in the Roanoke region stands up well and helps communicate some of the values we have as a community, such as education and preservation.”
Rhonda Morgan, former director of the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge and now head of the Museum & Cultural Foundation in Blacksburg, has seen arts and culture through a difficult period in the valley. She lost her job when money dried up within an organization that had been a mainstay for visual artists for years.
Here’s what she thinks: “The strength in the Roanoke Valley is in the creative class, where there are a lot of creatives. The weakness is in the failure to utilize that strength. There is no connectivity for the pockets of creativity and there is a lack of a shared vision at all the different levels. That keeps [the art community] from being able to move forward.
“When the economy fell, there was the reaction of pulling away support from the arts and there has been a failure since then of support at a level where you can create change and add value.”
Beth Pline, marketing director of the Roanoke Symphony, an organization that has shone financially with its vision of late, takes a philosophical view. “I believe the arts/cultural scene is in the process of ‘right-sizing’ itself,” she says. “The recession served as a harsh reminder of what the community was committed to supporting and caused us to think through the financial commitments we agree upon. Organizations are changing and need to change, evolving in ways that meet the needs of the community and not vice versa.”
Cyrus Pace, director of the innovative Jefferson Center says bluntly, “The arts is a Roanoke City conversation.” And he has a point. The Roanoke Valley’s other three localities – Roanoke County, Vinton, Salem – are only marginally involved in the arts and contribute little to those institutions located in the city. That would be most of the institutions, and all of the important ones.
The point here is that the arts is a huge developmental lure for the economic community and it is used by all the governments in the Roanoke Valley, but the city is the one government that is most counted upon for support. “Roanoke and its people are owed a great debt of gratitude,” says Pace.
Scott Williamson, general and artistic director of Opera Roanoke, calls Roanoke, without hesitation, “the cultural destination of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.”
Still, as Jim Sears, the recently retired director of Center in the Square, says, “It’s all scaled back” from where it was when $3.8 million a year came from the state and healthy companies in a good economy contributed generously. Staffs are much slimmer in many organizations and the numbers and types of exhibits at many organizations are less impressive and fewer than in the past.
Programming, says Sears, is still a challenge. “People say, ‘Well, you’re still open and that’s something.’ The point though, is whether the public is happy with that. If so, that’s where we’ll stay. If not, they’ll support more and we’ll improve.”
Even if state government has disappeared, localities are kicking in as their decreasing budgets allow. “The public arts program is a good example of how this works at its best,” says Rhonda Morgan, alluding to Susan Jennings’ program in Roanoke where art is high profile on streets and parks and even on bus stops and garbage cans. Pat Wilhelms of Roanoke Children’s Theatre, concurs: “I am so proud of our city’s Arts Commission and [its] willingness to see the challenges and find solutions to sustain the arts scene in Roanoke, through funding, marketing or opportunities throughout the parks.” –DS
Hollins Theatre Breaks a Leg
It’s been 10 years since Ernie Zulia left a career in professional theater to take over the Hollins University theater department. Three years later, Todd Ristau did the same and joined Zulia to found the Playwright’s Lab.
Their collaboration recently landed 613-student Hollins in the Top 20 nationally among college theater departments in the country (Princeton Review, No. 18) It also led to a $3 million infusion into the theater facilities. The program has also seen a student play by Meredith Levy win a Kennedy Center national student award (among eight Kennedy Center awards for the program, including four for an original production of Bellocq’s Ophelia based on the poetry of grad Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer winner.)
Another result: Hollins will host the February 4-10, 2014, Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and co-hosted by Mill Mountain Theatre at Center In The Square. The department also brings in national theater figures on a regular basis to teach master classes and hang with students.
Hollins Theater has emerged as the region’s standard for productions and it actually reached that status, according to those who know such things, before Roanoke’s professional Mill Mountain Theatre closed a couple of years ago (it has re-opened). Zulia was with MMT for years before touring nationally. Broadway-like productions of “9,” “Chicago” and “Cabaret” raised the bar. Levy’s “Decision Height” last year kept it high and in 2014 it will rise again. The theater will produce Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” as a play (she’s an alum, one of four Pulitzer winners, and was once married to R.H.W. Dillard, the long-time head of the writing program). The Playwright’s Lab, headed by Ristau, will hold a Festival of New Works and there is a wide variety of other events scheduled, several in conjunction with MMT.
Collaboration with the community has been at the heart of the Hollins Theater growth, says Zulia. “There’s a lot of support for these bridges,” he says.
“When you’re training kids,” says Ristau, “you want to reach wider audiences” and that has been accomplished consistently. “We approach this like we would a small theater company.”
All of this has been done, says Zulia, with “the same budget” he started with. “We’ve redistributed it.”