As year-long news cycles go, 2018 made for a relatively quiet year on the Southwest Virginia arts beat. No new multi-million dollar institutions launched to great fanfare. No established multi-million dollar institutions shut down under duress. For the most part, the arts in the region stayed the course, offering a sweeping array of attractions, from classic one-of-a-kind cars to a Moss Arts Center appearance by Maria Callas as a singing hologram.
That said, to my mind, the biggest news story was a development distressful to many rail fans and tourism board members. After chugging into Roanoke under its own power a little over three years ago as thousands of onlookers cheered, the restored Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam engine was metaphorically stalled on its tracks, with a policy decision announced in March by Amtrak bringing a halt to many steam train excursions nationwide. Amtrak’s cited reasons included train schedule delays and weak profit margins.
The change left the Virginia Museum of Transportation bereft of a major new revenue stream and severely hampered the use of its most famous attraction. Built in Roanoke in 1950 and beloved the world over, the 611 is the last surviving passenger steam locomotive of its class.
“With Amtrak not interested in operating excursions right now, where we would have fallen under their insurance umbrella, now we basically have to find our own or find another host that would have that insurance,” said VMT board member Brian Barton, railroad operations manager for the 611. “It definitely will take some work, but I think that we can do that.”
VMT continues to explore options for getting the 611 on a roll again. “Seeing a locomotive is nice, but people want to see it moving,” Barton said. “We are in discussions with a couple of other entities that are willing to host the 611, either for excursions or displays or special events. There’s a lot going behind the scenes.”
Another obstacle the 611 must overcome involves new regulations requiring many locomotives to have a positive train control system installed. PTC, as it’s referred to for short, is a safety system that will automatically stop a train under certain conditions. It’s possible that the 611 will have to operate with a diesel locomotive in the lead that is equipped with PTC in order to be compliant.
One piece of good news: The 611 is in the best shape it’s ever been. “When we were running excursion service, the locomotive’s performance was as good if not better than it was in the ’50s, because of the work that’s been done to it,” said Barton, who by day works as a network operations trainmaster for CSX. “She’s ready to go.”
Curiously, throughout the year, as I wrote about developments (or non-developments) in this story, a few rail fans would pop up in the roanoke.com comments to swear up and down that Amtrak had nothing to do with the cancellation of the 611 excursions, even though Amtrak and VMT publicly acknowledged the effects of the decision. On some level I understand — there’s a lot to love about Amtrak, as Southwest Virginians making use of Roanoke’s spiffy platform can attest.
This further elucidation is for those loyal Amtrak warriors, and hopefully helpful in general. Yes, Norfolk Southern originally handled the operations and insurance for the most recent 611 excursions. In 2017, as construction of the Roanoke passenger platform approached its end, Norfolk Southern passed those responsibilities on to Amtrak. The process was amicable. The Virginia Museum of Transportation was in the midst of working out a schedule with Amtrak when the policy change was announced, catching museum officials by surprise.
VMT Interim Director Don Moser points out, naturally, that there’s a lot more going on at VMT than the 611. The museum is working on developing a ride on the Roanoke Belt Line, a track line given to the VMT by the Norfolk Southern that runs about two-and-a-half miles through Wasena Park, though completion is still a couple of years in the future at least. “We would own it. It’s not like 611, where you’re dependent on the outside world to do anything with it,” Moser said.
For more about the Virginia Museum of Transportation, call 342-5670 or visit www.vmt.org.
To round out the “Top 5” format, here are four more top arts news items from 2018, in no particular order. I want to emphasize, this is not a “Best of 2018” list, but simply a list of some significant things that happened in 2018.
In June, Opera Roanoke underwent a surprise shakeup, with general manager and artistic director Scott Williamson resigning after the board, reassessing the nonprofit’s financial needs, reduced his position to part time. Williamson had led the 42-year-old company since 2010, overseeing a return to fully staged operas. Williamson’s replacement in the part-time position was a familiar face, Steven White, who led Opera Roanoke for 11 years before Williamson took over, and frequently returned as a guest conductor. In signs of cost saving, the first performance after White returned was a concert opera, “Opera to Die For.” Williamson will rejoin his Opera Roanoke colleagues in May as stage director for a fully staged “The Barber of Seville.”
The once-beleaguered Taubman Museum of Art scored a double whammy in the fall, first opening “Drive! Iconic American Cars and Motorcycles” in September, a special ticketed exhibition featuring rare and one-of-a-kind vehicles in mint condition. Museum officials said attendance was comparable to the “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” show in 2016. Two months later, the museum celebrated its 10th anniversary, demonstrating how far it has come since its shaky earliest years, when the $66 million institution was plagued by layoffs and rumors of impending shutdown. With the struggle to survive a thing of the past, the museum has turned its focus to reaching new audiences, either by drawing them in to visit or bringing its programming to people who can’t easily make the trip.
In addition to the 10th anniversary of the Taubman Museum, 2018 featured two more 10-year anniversaries that speak to the variety of arts offerings in Roanoke. On the government side, the Roanoke Arts Commission concluded a year-long celebration of the city’s public art program, which turned 10. On the scrappy independent side, the tiny avant garde Off the Rails Theatre troupe commemorated 10 seasons with a performance at a downtown Roanoke brewery.
I’ll finish with a story that was a personal delight for me — the feature I did on Army veteran John Koelsch and Air Force veteran Suzie Glass, who choreographed a dance routine in order to enter the “Wheelchair Dance, Group, Novelty” category of National Veterans Creative Arts Competition as part of a competition coordinated through the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Ultimately, they finished with a bronze medal and a determination to keep entering the competition.
Here’s to what 2019 will bring!