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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Arts All Around: Art Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke

By Brbara-lyn Morris | October 29, 2007

It's a bird; no, it's a spaceship landed in the middle of downtown Roanoke.

It's a plane; no, it's a train, specifically, a streamlined Class-J locomotive, according to Kimberly Parker, operations manager of the O. Winston Link Museum, which is located just across the Norfolk Southern train tracks from the construction project that is creating a buzz in the art world.

It's a super-duper structure designed to draw folks from near and far. No doubt about that!

Construction began in May 2006 on a new home for the Art Museum of Western Virginia (AMWV). The daring design is the work of Randall Stout, a Los Angeles architect with deep roots in eastern Tennessee. Stout sold his plans to the building committee primarily as a dual sculptural tribute: to the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains that form the backdrop for the Roanoke Valley and to the industrial/railroad past that continues to define Roanoke in many ways.

There is also incorporated in the building the idea of reaching upward to the stars and to THE star of Roanoke. The landmark mountainside star of the city will shine into the building and be reflected by it. An arch in the building imitates the Natural Bridge of Virginia. Ever since Stout won the design competition, the building has been the topic of endless community debate.

The location of Stout's bold concept has been the subject of even louder debate. D. Kent Chrisman, executive director of the History Museum and Historical Society of Western Virginia, explained the situation this way: "It would be a lovely building if placed elsewhere; however, it is not a sympathetic addition to the Roanoke City Market National Historic District." I heard these sentiments expressed by several people in four fall visits to Roanoke.

The ultra-futuristic structure occupies nearly one entire block in the historic district and soars above and envelops on two sides two historic commercial brick buildings. A third well-preserved 1880 three-story red brick building was demolished to make way for the massive new building. The fa?ade of that building has been saved and will be reassembled to block view of the museum's generators and transformers, a gesture that adds insult to injury to those who adamantly maintain that the historic building should never have been demolished, and the new building is quite simply in the WRONG place.

Nevertheless, it is where it is in Roanoke's historic Market Place. David J. Brown, the museum's deputy director of art collections and exhibitions, categorized the current community response as one of three: those who "adore" the design and location, those who were "unsure at first but are now friends," and finally, there are the "polite, no comment" people. Among downtown merchants and from random people on the street, I heard many positive endorsements of both the design and the location.

George J. Mongon, the deputy director for institutional advancement at AMWV, explained that "while no one in a million years would have imagined this in Roanoke, what has been done is purposeful. The igniters of this project wanted to attract people to the core of Roanoke, the very traditional and historic core. This will do it."

He described the "igniters" as "very courageous" board members and patrons of the arts. The specific "champions of let's be bold" were Jenny and Nick (current Ambassador to Rumania) Taubman and Heywood Fralin as well as the entire board in the mid to late 1990s.

Mongon recently led a tour around the construction site for participants in a community meeting sponsored by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Statewide Task Force. He talked excitedly about the future 81,000-square-foot assemblage of gallery space, auditorium, theater, lobby, museum store, and restaurant.

Overall, the building is a $66 million project. Beyond that, Mongon explained there is need for a $10 million endowment for the new building and $5-6 million more to "boost up the educational programs." As of late September, approximately $50 million could be counted in the museum's fund-raising efforts.

Last June, the board of trustees of the new museum held a "topping out" celebration to mark the placement of the last steel beam. With that in place, the structural skeleton was complete and the skin of the building could begin to be applied. The undulating roof is of stainless steel with a patterned finish that will reflect changes in light and color of the sky. The sides are a combination of pre-patinated zinc on aluminum panels that have a rusty look to them and heavily tinted glass that has special reflective properties. An 80-foot atrium has 785 panels of glass.

The new facility is expected to open in mid-November 2008. Meanwhile, the museum continues to be open and active at One Market Square.

One of the last exhibits to be mounted in the current space promises to be well worth a visit: "Painting for Joy: New Japanese Painting in the 1990s," which will be on view Nov. 9-Dec. 31.

Art advocate and author Barbara Guggenheim will be the featured speaker at the museum's annual Women's Luncheon, Nov. 28 at The Hotel Roanoke. At that time, poet Nikki Giovanni will receive the Ann Fralin Award for her "vision and commitment to and support of the arts, education and quality of life in our community." Tickets to this popular event may still be available at 540-857-4386.

Significant features of the new Art Museum of Western Virginia seemingly soar to the stars.

The bold design of the new museum is in contrast to the others in Roanoke's historic district

The design by Randall Stout, a Los Angeles architect with deep roots in eastern Tennessee, pays tribute to the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains and the area's industrial/railroad heritage.