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Editorial: A long-term lifeline for the arts

Editorial: A long-term lifeline for the arts

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Star City Arts Festival

Roanoke Ballet Theatre performed during the Star City Arts Festival in 2019. A donation made by an anonymous contributor allowed the Roanoke Cultural Endowment to sponsor the inaugural event.

With the election results and their consequences dominating the headlines, a little bit of quieter news slid under the radar last week.

The Roanoke Cultural Endowment shared its latest figures: $4 million raised gifts and pledges, with an additional $5 million pledged in legacy gifts, in which the donor has designated that a portion of their estate will go to the endowment.

While there’s still a long way to go — that legacy gift is not money in hand, after all — these figures make RCE’s eventual goal of $20 million look just a shade more achievable, with time and sustained effort.

Even within the relatively non-clickbait-y realm of regional arts announcements, this tidbit is nowhere near as glitzy as, say, the Taubman Museum of Art opening a show featuring the costumes worn by Chadwick Boseman in “Black Panther,” Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” and Oprah Winfrey in “Selma.” Or jazz greats like Samara Joy and Wynton Marsalis performing at Jefferson Center. Or Broadway diva Kristin Chenoweth singing on the Moss Arts Center stage in Blacksburg. Or the Beach Boys crooning in a sold out performance at Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center.

The Roanoke Cultural Endowment represents a tortoise of sorts to the glamorous but fleeting hares that are these shows, a slow and steady means of winning the race.

It’s a project built to pay off in the long run, the sort of effort that’s still too rare in these parts.

The origins of the endowment date back to November 2013, at a summit where city leaders met with staff and board members of arts organizations, trying to figure out how a permanent lifeline might work. At the time 14 of those arts and culture nonprofits reported a combined operating budget deficit of $2.7 million and $20 million in unmet construction and renovation needs.

The next year the Roanoke Cultural Endowment was launched as a public-private partnership, meant to receive contributions from the city and from private donors.

The idea is that when the sum in the endowment reaches $20 million (those running it hope to climb much further, but $20 million is the initial goal) RCE will be in a position to start giving out grants to help Roanoke’s arts and culture nonprofits with their operating costs. This potentially provides these organizations, which are often running on shoestrings, with a safety net.

The bulk of the good news resulted from the philanthropy of patrons in the private sector. Originally the city discussed giving $250,000 per year to the endowment, but that amount has often been reduced or slashed. So far, the city has allotted a total of $1,075,000 to the fund since 2015, with $175,000 more included in the 2021-22 budget.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered arts nonprofits in March 2020 and kept them closed for months, demonstrated what such a fund would be good for. The federal aid packages have had their flaws, notably with the long delays in the issuance of Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, and they didn’t prevent layoffs and cutbacks, but they did give arts organizations breathing room to regroup and relaunch.

In a what-if scenario wherein this federal aid had not been available, having the endowment at full capacity sure would have been handy. As endowment Executive Director Shaleen Powell once put it, there will be another crisis, because that’s life. Hopefully the endowment will be poised to contribute when it does.

Arts community leaders might wistfully contemplate where things would stand if an effort like this one had been founded in, say, 1950. Through the 1980s, the arts in Roanoke benefited from the largess of millionaire heiress Marion Via, a heady time that ended with her death in 1993. In the early 2000s the state stopped including direct money in the budget for most for arts and cultural organizations. Grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts became the only state source of funding.

Endowments are difficult entities to raise funds for, and the reason why is much the same as the reason why building up a savings account can be a challenge, as there are so many needs here and now that need tending.

In fact, in 2018, the Roanoke endowment received a gift from a donor who wanted the money to benefit Roanoke arts immediately. The gift paid for a 2019 study by Washington, D.C., nonprofit Americans for the Arts, that made an assertion that arts and culture generates $64 million annually for the city’s economy, more than just providing entertainment.

The gift also let the endowment sponsor the Star City Arts Festival and Roanoke Arts Pop! — events run by Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and the Taubman, respectively, that brought many organizations together in collaboration. The pandemic sidelined the continuation of these events. The Taubman intends to bring back Roanoke Arts Pop! in March 2022, and meanwhile the endowment will explore possible new ventures.

In terms of attracting tourist dollars, the arts in the Roanoke Valley have tended to hold an “and also” position. As in, come for all the outdoor amenities, the beautiful mountains, the hiking, the biking, the fishing, the kayaking, the breweries with outdoor seating (hey, that’s outdoor activity, too, right?) — and while you’re here you can also take your kids to a museum or spending an evening watching live theater.

Sometimes this reality causes those who work to keep the arts alive a bit of chagrin. Yet economic development officials are quick to say the arts matter. Roanoke’s Director of Economic Development Marc Nelson calls support for the arts “an investment in the totality of the community.”

Economic development’s a tough job. Potential prospects receive offers from all over the country, localities falling all over themselves to come up with the most enticing offer. Any factor that provides even the slightest dab of extra icing can make the difference in where a company chooses to locate.

If investment in the arts proves the sort of dedication to a robust, thriving community that gives Roanoke that crucial extra edge, what does a long term, well-planned investment in something like the Roanoke Cultural Endowment show?

As Nelson put it, “I think there’s a lot of communities that would look at what the endowment is doing here and say, ‘I wish we were that far ahead.’”

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