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Surprise! Harrisonburg Has An Arts Scene

In 2001, Harrisonburg City Council designated its downtown as an Arts and Cultural District.

WMRA's Luanne Austin begins a series on downtown Harrisonburg's arts scene.  Even though the city has lost one of its most popular music venues at the Blue Nile, downtown is expected to continue to attract art, theater and music lovers from around the area.

In 2001, the Harrisonburg City Council designated its downtown as an Arts and Cultural District. Since then, the area around Court Square has gradually been transformed into a thriving arts scene. Lindsay Denny is marketing manager for the Arts Council of the Valley.

DENNY:  Harrisonburg is really overflowing with art. There’s music at places like Clementine, Capital Ale House, the Blue Nile, Artful Dodger and Court Square Theater, just to name a few. And then there are documentary, independent and award-winning films that are being shown at Court Square Theater. And we also have a community theater group in town called Valley Playhouse.

Court Square Theater, downtown’s largest venue, is also host to the annual Super Gr8 Film Festival. Manager Michael Weaver says the theater offers events seven nights a week. 

WEAVER:  Our attendance over the last three years has just been on a high arc up and that’s across the board from our music shows to live theater to movies.  

Another creative hub is Larkin Arts, a Court Square business that sells art supplies, offers art classes and rents studio space to working artists. Along with OASIS, an artists’ cooperative featuring fine arts and crafts, Larkin Arts also houses one of the city’s dedicated gallery spaces. Here’s co-owner Scott Whitten.

WHITTEN:  I think the arts scene in Harrisonburg right now is very eclectic. We have a lot of different types of artists, musicians, visual artists, folks in theater and, just a lot of self-starters trying to make a lot of neat and interesting things happen in downtown Harrisonburg.  

Those neat and interesting things include collaborative art events like Art Lotto, the Artery and Skatan Worshippers. This fall, the Arts Council and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance are holding a mural contest to beautify the concrete wall of a parking deck.  Is all of this art, music, poetry and theater attracting even more artistic types to Harrisonburg? That may be true, but Whitten thinks it’s even more than that.   

WHITTEN:  One thing that really draws a lot of artists to Harrisonburg or makes them stick around is—obviously in the Shenandoah Valley we have beautiful surroundings and it’s a great place to live—but Harrisonburg has a really nice sense of community, and what we’re seeing more and more of is a quality that’s always been there but there’s a sense of sort of sharing. There’s no exclusiveness.

Paul Somers, a JMU graduate who returned to live in Harrisonburg in 2008, is a poet, artist and curator who founded some of the city’s most successful art events. He founded the annual Skatan Worshippers and juried art shows, co-founded the Super Gr8 Film Festival and started monthly poetry readings. Somers says the arts enrich the lives of the people who live in and around Harrisonburg. 

Nothing can replace the sense you have of being fully engaged with the community and culture. I could easily live in Harrisonburg for the unforeseeable future, you know, the rest of my life I could stay here and be happy if it stays like this.

Luanne Austin was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.