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Whence It Came: The Rise of Art, Music, and More in Harrisonburg

So, how did Harrisonburg develop its arts and music scene?

Turns out, quite a few people have been working pretty hard at growing the arts in Harrisonburg, and as WMRA's Luanne Austin reports, that goes hand-in-hand with the effort to revitalize downtown.

[Opening notes from "Streetworkers Union" by Harrisonburg band Elephant Child]

For many years, the art scene in downtown Harrisonburg could be described as fragmented. Valley Playhouse offered live theater in makeshift locations, the Little Grill could be counted on for live music, and OASIS featured fine arts and crafts. But many shops and restaurants had closed or moved to strip malls, so there wasn’t much to draw visitors downtown. Over the past decade, that has changed. The city’s downtown has become the place to go for art, poetry readings, theater, film, music …  AND shopping and dining. So how did the turkey capital of Virginia pull off this transformation? Eddie Bumbaugh is executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.

EDDIE BUMGAUGH:  Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance was formed in 2003. Just prior to that, the Arts Council of the Valley was formed and I think what that demonstrates is there was interest on the part of local government as well as citizens to support both arts and downtown revitalization, and frankly, I think the two are related.

In 2004, a biannual Museum and Gallery Walk was started and became so popular that, three years later, the Arts Council turned it into a monthly event, First Fridays Downtown. In the meantime, an underground music scene was happening in Harrisonburg that attracted lots of artistic young people.   

PAUL SOMERS:  So I what we’re seeing now kind of surging is still, it has elements of that, that young, aesthetic-minded, creative, little bit of attitude, an arts scene.

That was Paul Somers, a poet and artist who in 2009 founded Skatan Worshipers, an exhibit showcasing the aesthetics of skateboard culture. He and filmmaker Tim Estep  were impressed with the exhibit’s quality of work, quantity of entries and community support. That’s when they came up with the idea for the Super Gr8 Film Festival.

SOMERS:  It was a tipping point, because after that, it introduced all these people to each other and, you know, Tim and I kind of facilitated linking people up as much as we could, like, “Oh, you want to make a film, well, I know a guy who said he may be interested in acting in a film,” so, you have all these filmmaking teams that form out of that, made up of people who previously did not know each other. They’re all creative people working in the arts at some level, be it professionally or in their spare time.”  

Collaboration seems to be the norm here. Art Lotto brings artists together to create an annual multi-media show, and Court Square Theater has partnered with Valley Playhouse and Staunton’s Visulite Theater to add plays and films to its offerings. Manager Michael Weaver says all shows at the theater are well-attended.

MICHAEL WEAVER:  The biggest factor was that we’re now open seven days a week.

The city now has numerous galleries, museums, art and music stores, recording studios and film production companies.

WEAVER:  Downtown as a whole has just been snowballing. Everyone’s efforts, whether they’re an individual or an organization or a business, just keep building on each other. And so, downtown continues to thrive and then we’re all benefitting from that as well.

[Elephant Child music fadeout]

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