The Southwest Virginia arts scene kept me hopping in 2019, as it has since I became Arts & Extras columnist back in the summer of 2009. Reflecting on what I would call the top five stories of the past year’s news cycle, the patterns I find involve transitions. (Allow me to add my usual disclaimer that this shouldn’t be interpreted as a “best of the year” list.)
1. Roanoke Cultural Endowment
In the Roanoke Valley, 2019 marks the year the Roanoke Arts Endowment took its first public steps toward assuming the leadership role this nonprofit will hold when and if the plan governing it reaches full fruition.
To refresh, the endowment was founded in 2014 after arts leaders and city officials brainstormed ways to create a lifeline for arts organizations. The struggles these nonprofits had faced — because of the Great Recession, reductions in government funding, dwindling business contributions and in a few cases wounds self-inflicted by overreaching — fueled a push to come up with a permanent, sustainable solution to keeping Roanoke’s venerable cultural institutions afloat.
The idea officials agreed on combined public and private funds, resulting in a plan for philanthropists in the private sector to found a nonprofit that the city could contribute to each year. It will take the Roanoke Cultural Endowment years to accumulate $20 million, the funding goal at which it will start offering grants to arts institutions seeking help with operating funds. However, a gift from an anonymous donor allowed RCE to do things sooner to benefit the arts.
Two of those efforts were trumpeted with great public fanfare. In October, RCE unveiled a study done by Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, which asserted arts and culture generate $64 million annually for the city’s economy, making the case that the arts give good returns on investment. And in August, the endowment sponsored the first-ever Star City Arts Festival, a one-day event in Elmwood Park organized by Roanoke Symphony Orchestra that gathered most of the city’s arts organizations and several individual artists in one place to show wares, give demos and put on performances.
Organizers conceived the Star City Arts Festival as a permanent tradition, though nothing official has been announced as to whether it will return in 2020. “The hope and the intent is that it will,” said Shaleen Powell, the endowment’s executive director. “Feedback from it has been overwhelmingly positive.”
2. Pearl Fu
Pearl Fu didn’t found the Local Colors festival, but her leadership and charisma made it grow into the beloved tradition it is today. With a mission to promote multicultural understanding in every way, Fu became known as Roanoke’s goodwill ambassador, easily spotted at events despite her diminutive size because she would wear colorful traditional garments celebrating her heritage as a member of China’s Yi minority. Finally slowed down by Parkinson’s disease, she retired as executive director of Local Colors in 2014, and, in October, she and husband C.C. moved to Philadelphia to be closer to one of their three daughters, artist Colette Fu. Roanoke City honored her by bestowing the name Pearl Fu Plaza on the downtown common that holds the Friendship Fountain and the Sister Cities Flags Pavilion.
In a commentary for this newspaper, Roanoke County writer Chris Muse penned a moving tribute to Fu’s legacy. “Her idea was simple. She wanted to create a gathering of all the people from all the different countries who call the Roanoke Valley their home so they could educate the public, and each other, about their heritage, their culture, and display the unique facets which separate them while at the same time reminding each of us that we are all the same.”
3. Roanoke arts and cultural coordinator
Susan Jennings, hired in 2006 as Roanoke’s first arts and cultural coordinator, retired from the part-time position in July. When she signed on, she had already spent 14 years advocating for the arts as executive director of the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge. Much of her work involved creating the procedures city officials use to select new public artwork and receive arts grant applications. She established Roanoke’s public art program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018. Leaving the job on a high note, she told The Roanoke Times, “I want to see the next person come in and be really creative with it.”
Her successor turned out to be a familiar figure in the regional arts world, community coach, author, blogger and previous Roanoke Arts Commission chairman Doug Jackson, who described the arts as “a really meaningful starting point for engaging neighborhoods. It helps them put their fingerprint on the world around them.”
4. Star City School of Ballet
The year began with a change that was in its own way momentous, as the Star City School of Ballet, formerly the Dance Centre of Southwest Virginia, and before then the Post School of Ballet, left its longtime home of 33 years in Salem to move into a newly furbished studio in the Roanoke Industrial Center. The school, whatever its name, has been home since 1990 to the nonprofit Southwest Virginia Ballet, which earlier this month mounted its 27th big production of “The Nutcracker” at Berglund Center.
The advantages were self-evident as the school moved from a 3,800-square-foot space to one with 15,000 square feet. Southwest Virginia Ballet artistic director and Star City School co-owner Pedro Szalay called it “a dream come true.”
5. Virginia Museum of Transportation
Since the retirement of businessman, politician and fan of buses, trains, cars and planes Bev Fitzpatrick at the end of 2017, the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke has had trouble finding someone to fill the shoes of a persona arguably as ubiquitous to the city as Pearl Fu. Fitzpatrick’s immediate replacement, Lisa Sphar, only lasted four months. Nearly a year later in May, the museum brought in an intriguing newcomer, Bob Sigman, whose resume included executive vice president for Spelling Entertainment, president and chief executive officer of Republic Pictures and director of the Museum of Western Film History.
“I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time,” Sigman said in June, but ultimately it wasn’t so, as he departed in November. Long-time museum deputy director Don Moser will once again serve as interim director while the museum seeks another replacement.
This is my final column of the year. Until January, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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