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With Bold Museum, A Virginia City Aims for Visibility

Posted By Administration, Saturday, December 29, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Since the 1980s, this old railroad and manufacturing city has been trying to transform itself into a magnet for white-collar families, who expect amenities like the ballet and symphonies.

The downtown area has been revitalized, and wine bars, boutiques and condominiums have replaced empty storefronts.

The latest addition is the new $66 million Art Museum of Western Virginia, one of the most expensive and controversial projects in the city's history. The museum's avant-garde architecture is a gamble intended to put Roanoke on the nation's cultural map.


Nationwide, other mid-size cities, including Milwaukee and Biloxi, Miss., hope similarly bold museums will revitalize their downtowns, replicating the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"Bilbao really opened people's eye because it was visible on the worldwide stage," said Jim Hackney, an Atlanta fund-raiser for new museums.

The Roanoke museum's zinc, glass and steel spires rise like an abstract sculpture as workers prepare for an opening next November.

Designed by the Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, a protégé of Frank Gehry, the museum's architecture contrasts with the historic red-brick downtown with its farmers market, refurbished neon signs and faded billboards for powder-milk biscuits.

Detractors liken its architecture to the "wreck of the Flying Nun" or the crash of a flying saucer, a mishmash of jutting angles. They express fears of operating shortfalls if the museum fails to draw the projected 500 visitors a day. But many Roanoke leaders are betting that the museum will be an economic engine for this city of 92,500, strengthening its arts community and increasing tourism.

Pam Floyd, who recently opened a gallery in a former tattoo parlor, said the 82,000-square-foot museum, first proposed in 1999 to replace a smaller museum, is itself a work of art. "We knew that was going in across the street," Ms. Floyd said. "I wanted to be downtown when the arts are a growing presence."

Mayor Nelson Harris predicts that the new museum will draw people for repeated visits to this city, roughly halfway between Washington and Charlotte, N.C.

Georganne Bingham, the museum's executive director, wants to erase the perception that wealthy patrons foisted the museum on the city. She said modest admission fees of $7 to $9, school programs and family nights would attract local residents to the museum's 19th- and 20th-century American art and a special exhibit of Rembrandt paintings and etchings.

"Art museums are usually considered elitist," Ms. Bingham said, "but we're determined to break the feeling."

Mr. Stout, the architect, sees the museum as reflecting Appalachia's undulating hills, cascading waterfalls and linear rail lines. He said he thought it could contribute to the city's revival.

"I hate to think one building takes the heat for transforming an entire city," he said, "but I think it's a contributing factor to the cultural richness of the city."

Not everyone agrees.

"It looks kind of weird," said Brenda Gooden, a payroll clerk and lifelong resident of Roanoke. "And there's not much else here in Roanoke, so I doubt it'll be that much of a draw."

Michelle Bennett, who has worked for several local arts organizations, said many residents feared that the museum's capital campaign had drained Roanoke's art patrons, leaving little money for the building's operations and other causes.

"The money is so tight now," said Miki Overcast, a gallery owner. "I wonder what will happen when they have to pay the heating and air-conditioning bills."

John Reburn, whose gift shop is next to the new museum, said sentiment softened this summer as the building took shape.

"Because of my location, I get all of the nay-sayers and the happy museum people," Mr. Reburn said. "In the last few months, even the locals who were grumpy stare at it. It's like children: you have to hand it to them before they appreciate the gift."

The Milwaukee Museum of Art gained attention after a new pavilion designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava opened in May 2001.

Attendance surged initially, to nearly 540,000 in 2002 from 165,000 in 2000, before dropping to about 300,000 annually in recent years.

Russell Bowman, the museum's former director, said the $125 million pavilion helped residents see their working-class city in a more cosmopolitan light. But Mr. Bowman said he was not sure a building alone could transform a city into a tourist destination.

Curiosity seekers may come once, he said, but the trick is attracting repeat visitors.

"Certainly, the challenge is to keep the interest alive through programs, exhibitions and events," Mr. Bowman said.

Private donations are covering most of the cost of Roanoke's new museum. Officials said $51 million of the project's $66 million cost had been raised from about 175 arts patrons. A $3 million endowment for operations has also been acquired. City, state and federal governments are providing $12 million. The city also donated the museum's one-acre site, valued at $1.1 million.

Nicholas F. Taubman, a Roanoke native who is the United States ambassador to Romania, and his wife, Jenny, who heads the museum's capital campaign, contributed $25 million.

"I think the museum will be a hinge on which the economic future of downtown Roanoke will swing, as well as the region," Mr. Taubman said. "It's just the right thing in the right place."

Mr. Hackney, the Atlanta fund-raiser, said residents would embrace the new museum as it progressed from blueprints to steel beams. "People hated the Eiffel Tower when it first went up, and now it is cherished," he said. "I'm predicting the same turnaround in sentiment for Roanoke."
By Pamela J. Podger


For The New York Times

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