A! Magazine for the Arts

Arts All Around: The Gallery Scene in Downtown Roanoke

November 26, 2007

"Build it and they will come," the popular axiom from the film Field of Dreams, is often heard around Roanoke, Va. The reference is to expected visitors and patrons of the new futuristic, downtown home for the Art Museum of Western Virginia (AMWV). While there is great excitement and anticipation for the November 2008 opening, some express skepticism about the prospects of the museum's being successful after the initial influx of curiosity seekers.

Nevertheless, what has already happened is a proliferation of downtown galleries. Agnes Stringfellow, one of six partners in the 20-member cooperative Gallery 108, LLC, explained that just six years ago Roanoke had only two galleries -- both group ventures. "By early 2008, we expect a dozen or more galleries to be open. We're just thrilled," she added. She credits the new museum with the growth of art galleries and related businesses, as well as several exhibition spaces in restaurants. She also acknowledges the ongoing efforts of the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge "to nurture the visual arts."

Two of the new galleries are literally within a few steps of what will be the entrance to AMWV. Next door to the new museum is Roanoke Valley Printworks at 108 Salem Avenue, SE. In his fourth year of business, John W. Reburn, III, moved to Roanoke from Los Angeles after doing a national search for a place to relocate his "custom art print studio." He narrowed his choices to Roanoke and Austin, Texas, and chose Roanoke for these reasons: the arts scene promised by the new museum; the reasonable cost of living and high quality of the health care; and convenience to gift shows he attends for his specialty line of cards.

Reburn added: "Roanoke is a welcoming, wonderfully open town." When I mentioned the debate about both the design and location of the new museum, he said with confidence, "They (resisters) will get it when it happens. The debate is the best thing that could happen here."

Furthermore, he made this prediction about the new building: "It will be a living building 24 hours -- lit and alive; that's how I see it. It can't go dark -- literally." He talked enthusiastically about the black box theater and museum caf? as great draws downtown after typical museum hours.

George J. Mongon, deputy director for institutional advancement at AMWV, confirmed that vision, "We want to be a vortex for a practice of art in a variety of media. We want to incubate a greater interest in all the arts." He suggested a motto for the museum: "Celebrate, practice, and appreciate (all the arts)."

Directly across the street from the museum's front door is Pamela Jean Gallery, which had its official opening the end of October. The proprietor, Pam Floyd, described herself as having been "at the right time and place" when she acquired a former tattoo parlor at 115 Salem Avenue SE. In that space, she has created a marvelous showplace for regional artists.

A former art teacher, Floyd moved to Roanoke from Baltimore with her husband and four children because she "likes the city schools." She added, "I always wanted a gallery and this felt right."

So much seems right for the arts in downtown Roanoke. Three years ago the O. Winston Link Museum opened at 101 Shenandoah Avenue. It is located just across the railway tracks from the "other side" of AMWV (no one refers to front and back) and directly in front of the Hotel Roanoke. The "Link" boasts a permanent collection of more than 300 Norfolk and Western rail photographs.

According to the museum's operations manager, Kimberly Parker -- who happens to be a Virginia Intermont College graduate in photography -- the museum is ready to go beyond the Link collection of rail photographs to a "focus on photography as art. After all, Link was an artist." On exhibit through March 3, 2008, is "Civil War Redux," an exciting show of 50 Civil War prints from the Chrysler Museum and 20 pinhole photographic prints by Richmond artist Willie Anne Wright.

For those with holiday shopping in mind, I highly recommend these art venues, as well as a dozen more within a two- or three-block walk from the new museum. On Campbell Street, look for these: Graphics, Etc; The Binaba Shop; Studios on the Square; and Beads Indeed, billed as "the largest bead store in Virginia." On Salem Avenue, The Market Gallery is a fine artist cooperative. There I really liked the "red tree" paintings by Dorothy Blackwell from Lexington. McGraw Fine Art at 21 Franklin Road and the Katherine Devane Studio and Gallery at 513 S. Jefferson are worth the effort.

Downtown Roanoke has already become a remarkable visual arts destination with much more to come.