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Despite multiple closings in 2012, the region’s art scene remains vibrant.
ERIC BRADY | The Roanoke Times Taken 03/12/09 Exterior of the K.W. "Pete" Smith theatre on Campbell Avenue, home to Studio Roanoke.
JEANNA DUERSCHERL | The Roanoke Times 08/20/12 Visitors head to the tent at the Lime Kiln to listen to music on Friday night. The venue features the Kiln, the Bowl and the Tent which are all in need of various repairs.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Celebrate the Spirit of Roanoke at Roanoke Railfest on Saturday and Sunday.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times December 6, 2012 Work is done in what will be a rooftop restaurant in Center in the Square.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times Photo taken March 30, 2012 (foreground) Sophia Fieschel, 5, and Emma Sexton, 5, Clearbrook Elementary School kindergartners play in the Architecture section of Art Venture's exploratory gallery at the Taubman Museum of Art on Friday. The gallery opens to the public on Saturday at 10am-5pm with free admission.
Jared Soares | The Roanoke Times Shot on 05.24.07 Big River cast members before rehearsal Thursday afternoon at the Mill Mountain Theater on the Trinkle Main Stage. The play will open on June 1st and close on July 1st.
ERIC BRADY | The Roanoke Times Taken 03/12/09 Kenley Smith (left) and Todd Ristau in the green room back stage of the K.W. "Pete" Smith theater, home to Studio Roanoke.
Courtesy of Dana Brunetti
Dana Brunetti, who grew up in Covington, is an executive producer for "House of Cards," the new original series presented by Netflix.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times October 8, 2012 Taubman Museum of Art President and CEO David Mickenberg is interviewed after a press conference Monday, when it was announced that Mickenberg is stepping down.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
After documenting arts and culture-related closing after closing, I began to think of 2012 as the year of the Artspocalypse.
We’ve said goodbye to decades-old institutions such as the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge in Roanoke, Theater at Lime Kiln in Lexington, Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre in Ferrum.
Newer ventures in downtown Roanoke also folded, such as Studio Roanoke, The Shadowbox Cinema and Freckles, a vintage clothing store that hosted arts events. Downtown Roanoke also lost several art studios and galleries, including 11-year-old Gallery 108, which will shut its doors for good at the end of the month.
But for an intervention by the business leaders who funded its construction, we would also have likely lost the Taubman Museum of Art.
Though these losses were certainly distressing for those who worked at these organizations, and for the patrons who supported them, their closures haven’t dampened the art scene’s overall vibrancy.
Most of the arts council’s programs have been farmed out to other organizations; the Hollins Playwright’s Lab is presenting staged readings of the types of new works Studio Roanoke offered; and downtown Roanoke has seen the reopening of Studios on the Square and the 202 Market Square Galleries, featuring many of the artists displaced by gallery closings.
Theater companies such as Attic Productions in Fincastle, Showtimers in Roanoke County and Roanoke Children’s Theatre frequently play to packed houses.
At the start of the year, after writing about the new June M. McBroom Theater at Community High School, I had a humorous idea for a story that compared available theater seats in downtown Roanoke to its overall population.
By my very unscientific reckoning, in the spring downtown Roanoke had one theater seat for every 45 residents in Roanoke city and one for every 144 persons in the greater Roanoke metropolitan area. The number of seats downtown actually outnumbered the people who live downtown by about 2 to 1.
The numbers raised a question as to whether this region had a level of interest in the theater arts deep enough to keep all those seats occupied. But the wind went out of the story’s sails when Studio Roanoke shuttered in July.
The question remains valid, though, for Southwest Virginia’s arts community, especially with two major construction projects coming to fruition in 2013: the reopening of Roanoke’s Center in the Square to the tune of more than $27 million and the fall debut of the $94 million-plus Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech.
Amy Moorefield, director of the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University and chairwoman of the Roanoke Arts Commission, said that despite the closings the outlook for the arts remains encouraging.
Roanoke officials are more conscious than ever of the role of the arts in the community, with Vice Mayor David Trinkle organizing a committee to look at the sustainability of arts organizations. The city’s arts and culture plan, adopted last year, will make public art integral to projects such as the Elmwood Park renovation.
“Roanoke is in a nascent stage in terms of arts and culture development,” Moorefield said. “Per capita we have more arts and culture than cities of our like size.”
It could be, then, that much of this past year’s events amount to growing pains.
Here are some of the biggest stories I tracked in 2012, and what to watch for in 2013.
On March 31 the museum debuted a revamped Art Venture activity center for children that was greeted with enthusiasm by parents, teachers and the community.
Yet once again positive developments were overshadowed by financial straits. At a meeting with museum supporters in June, then-executive director David Mickenberg projected a $1.4 million budget shortfall in the 2012-13 fiscal year. “If we don’t raise the $1.4 million, we will close. That’s fact.”
The 4-year-old museum, whose revenues never kept up with expenses despite massive budget cuts, got down to “nickels and dimes left in the bank, the tank coming up on empty,” former board of trustees secretary Thomas McKeon said in October.
The board appealed for help from Roanoke business leaders and instrumental museum donors Nick Taubman and Heywood Fralin, who had stepped back after the $66 million museum opened in November 2008.
On Oct. 8, the museum announced a new board with Taubman as chairman and Fralin as vice chairman. Mickenberg stepped down, along with all but two of the previous board members. A gift from Advance Auto Parts, for which Taubman was once CEO, allowed the museum to open for free. Taubman pledged, “We’re not going to let the place go broke.”
Taubman officials hope that making the museum free will not just increase attendance but increase revenues at the gift shop and Norah’s Cafe. In 2013, we’ll start to see if the strategy pays off, and what other ideas the new board has for making the museum self-sufficient.
Even more crucially, the museum intends to search for a new executive director in the coming year.
Curtains fall, rise
Three regional theater venues dropped their final curtains in 2012, each for different reasons.
Three-year-old Studio Roanoke often struggled to bring in audiences for its edgy fare, and had no deep-pocket benefactors other than co-founder Kenley Smith , a playwright and retired businessman who also owned the downtown Roanoke building that housed the small nonprofit.
When Smith decided to put the building up for sale and move to Nashville, Tenn., to become involved in the arts scene there, Studio Roanoke had nothing to fall back on.
“I built a micro-Taubman,” Smith said afterward. “The mistake was making that grand assumption that people would embrace what we’re doing sight unseen.” The building is still for sale.
Theater at Lime Kiln, an outdoor venue near Lexington founded in 1984, faced a financial crisis when years of neglect caught up with its aging facilities . Despite vigorous appeals for help to the public and to Lexington and Rockbridge County governments, the theater ran out of money and dismissed its employees. This month, the board started liquidating the theater’s assets. The theater was unique for its setting — a stage set in the middle of a former lime factory — but had struggled with debt for many years.
Though the opposite was true for Ferrum’s Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, which operated in the black for 33 years, it folded this year with the retirement of its executive director and artistic director from the Ferrum College faculty. The closure leaves the region bereft of its only dinner theater with a regular season.
As for the coming year, the biggest story to watch is the long-anticipated comeback of Mill Mountain Theatre, until recently Roanoke’s only professional theater. It has been on a slow road to recovery since early 2009, when it closed under mounting debt problems that have since been resolved.
Mill Mountain plans to return to its 345-seat Trinkle Main Stage with a new musical in April. Theater officials have said they will announce a public fundraising campaign after Center’s planned grand opening in May.
The year also ends with a surprise grace note, as small community theater Star City Playhouse, another Roanoke company felled by debt problems, announced plans to return in 2013 in their new home in a Southeast Roanoke church.
So despite the theater losses this year, there should be no shortage of new productions in 2013.
Speaking of comebacks, and proof that this year’s closings weren’t a universal trend, the Virginia Museum of Transportation kicked off a celebration of its 50th anniversary with news that the city of Roanoke had gifted it with ownership of the prized Norfolk & Western Class J-611 and Class A-1218 steam engines that draw rail fans from around the world.
The celebration culminated in November with the debut of the museum’s new aviation gallery, “Wings Over Virginia.” The staff trumpeted the opening as an example of how the museum has stabilized financially and responded to feedback since it faced a financial and leadership crisis in 2006.
Many of the transportation museum’s recent strides were made possible by grants from the two-year Taubman Foundation Sustainability Grant program. Executive director Bev Fitzpatrick has said that going forward he intends to ask the Roanoke City Council to consider supporting the museum.
The fate of three other Roanoke downtown museums hinges on Center in the Square finishing renovations to its Campbell Avenue building so that they can move in ahead of the planned May grand opening.
The Science Museum of Western Virginia will have two full floors, five galleries, a butterfly garden that’s being touted as a major new downtown attraction, and a budget double what it’s maintained at its temporary location in Tanglewood Mall.
The History Museum of Western Virginia will have a new permanent exhibit detailing the development of the region. And the volunteer-only Harrison Museum of African American Culture will be open to visitors for the first time since it closed in December 2009 at its original location in the former Harrison Elementary School.
The three museums together have ongoing capital campaigns to fund their new exhibits totalling $9.2 million.
Center in the Square itself, beyond meeting its construction deadlines, has yet to find a tenant for its much-promoted rooftop restaurant space.
One thing we can be sure of, though, is that downtown Roanoke’s aquatic population will radically increase with four saltwater aquariums and one freshwater aquarium to be installed in Center’s atrium.
Eye on the big screen
With so many serious stakes, I thought it might be fun to end by looking at a different trend that’s growing — our region’s connections to the film industry.
Covington-raised film producer Dana Brunetti remains our heavy hitter. His projects as president of Trigger Street Productions include the Tom Hanks drama “Captain Phillips,” shot in Norfolk and scheduled to hit theaters in October 2013, and the Netflix-only television drama “House of Cards,” starring Brunetti’s boss and producing partner, actor Kevin Spacey, as a corrupt politician. The show’s first full season will become available for viewing Feb. 1.
Brunetti is also attached to what could be one of the decade’s major movie events — the adaptation of the runaway erotica best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Southwest Virginia also saw the production of several independent films.
The adaptation of the best-selling David Baldacci novel “Wish You Well,” starring Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn, was shot in Giles County in the fall. “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren was scheduled to visit Floyd County for the filming of low-budget thriller “House of Good and Evil,” but the shoot ultimately proceeded without her.
We began the year with Roanoke County-born actress Jen Lilley landing a closeup and a “speaking” part — actually a title card — in the silent film “The Artist,” which claimed the Oscar for Best Picture, and we end with Christiansburg actress Sarah Wylie getting screen credit for a bit part in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a surefire Oscar contender (it leads in Golden Globe nominations).
I didn’t spot Wylie when I saw the movie — she’s in a crowd shouting from a balcony at actor Tommy Lee Jones — but keep your eyes peeled, because Wylie assures me she’s visible. “I’m yelling,” she wrote. “And shaking my fists.”
On the blog
Are there other big arts stories you plan to keep track of in 2013? Share them with me on the Arts & Extras blog at blogs.roanoke.com/arts.
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