"I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and procure them its praise." – Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785.
A founding father of imagination, gadgetry and innovation, Thomas Jefferson likely would have enthusiastically approved of his hometown’s recent creative offerings in the 21st century: U2’s stadium concert, Festival of the Photograph and an anonymous, impromptu “poetry slam” on the Downtown Mall. Each brought praise, respect and enthusiasm for the region’s legacy of creativity, and furthered its reputation as an innovative and entrepreneurial arts and cultural center.
“Charlottesville’s extraordinary quality and variety of artistic and cultural activities make it a destination more than any place in the state,” says Maggie Guggenheimer, executive director of Piedmont Council of the Arts, which supports the arts community and leads newcomers and locals to “what’s going on” in the regional arts scene.
The ArtInPlace public art program places sculptures in green spaces and along major thoroughfares, allowing the community to live, work, drive and play among art. The University of Virginia Art Museum holds more than 12,000 objects from the ancient world to contemporary art, including the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Second Street Gallery, presenting leading-edge new art, stands out as the oldest nonprofit contemporary art space in Central Virginia.
Second Street shares its building with Live Arts, presenting leading-edge community theater and performance, and Light House, a center for teenagers exploring moviemaking. Another multi-disciplinary space, McGuffey Arts Center, sports 45 artist studios, galleries, dance spaces and classrooms. The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative’s small but dynamic venue offers emerging artists experimentation and collaboration in film, spoken word, music, visual arts and live performance.
“We have an astounding number of seats, unparalleled for a community our size,” says Guggenheimer about Charlottesville’s performing venues.
The Paramount Theater, the painstakingly restored crown jewel of the Downtown Mall, brings The Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD and acts like Tony Bennett, Chicago’s Second City Comedy and Ballet Hispanico, in addition to movie classics and family programming. The Downtown Mall’s live music clubs and the Pavilion’s April-October concerts showcase local and traveling musicians. In 2006, the John Paul Jones Arena opened as Virginia’s largest with 16,000 seats, offering Jimmy Buffett, Phish, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Ireland’s Riverdance and Broadway’s Hairspray.
Charlottesville’s various festivals bring visitors, media attention and a significant economic impact to the community. The Virginia Film Festival highlights the state’s film industry, attracting national and international filmmakers. The leading-edge Festival of the Photograph brings an impressive international focus. The Virginia Festival of the Book showcases the state’s writers, including renowned “locals” John Grisham, Rita Dove and Ann Beattie. It illuminates Charlottesville’s historical attraction for writers, from Jefferson, Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner to today’s new emerging writers, supported by groups like Writer House.
Why such an enthusiastic creative community? Besides the region’s inspirational natural beauty, Guggenheimer says, many formal and informal structures are in place to support creativity, like strong public school programming, ArtinPlace, venues and the university. Charlottesville’s cultural legacy flourishes today as a creative haven for artists, residents, businesses, and visitors.