A long time coming
When John Gibson moved to Charlottesville in 1991, “it was still a sleepy Southern university town,” the former executive director of Live Arts said over the phone, from Atlanta, where he lives now. “The C&O Jazz Club had just closed, and Prism Coffeehouse was down the road. Second Street was inside McGuffey. Miller’s was the center of the arts scene.”
But in the early ’90s, the town began to wake up. Live Arts became an established group, producing shows with a look and feel akin to those in the East Village. Dave Matthews emerged as a patron and an example, showing “that Charlottesville was capable of being an extraordinary platform for artists.” Regular celebrity sightings of Hollywood A-listers like Sissy Spacek, Jack Fisk, Sam Shepard, and Jessica Lange injected “something in the air that helped us believe this place was extraordinary.”
What’s more, Gibson said, an orbit of donors made the work of artists viable.
“The godfathers of art at that time are a pretty short list,” he said, naming Sandy McAdams (founder of the C&O Restaurant and Daedalus Bookshop), Steve Tharp (Miller’s), Anne Porotti and Chief Gordon (Vinegar Hill Theatre), Sandra Levine (PCA), dance choreographer Miki Liszt, and developer Gabe Silverman.
“Gabe really provided the key that unlocked the arts scene in Charlottesville as it is today,” Gibson said. “He was going to take chances on artists, and he had a West Coast perspective, whatever that means. He gave industrial space to artists and worked often on a handshake.”
As old commercial or industrial uses for Downtown structures fell away, artists capitalized on cheap rent and found a home for their work.
“In that little window we were able to sneak in and do some theater,” Gibson said.
Appreciative patrons like Ludwig Kuttner and Beatrix Ost were critical, too.
“Those tireless, curious people would come to the opening of a shower curtain and applaud,” he said. “They’d compare it to work in Berlin, and then they’d back up their beliefs with meaningful contributions.”
As cheap rent and out-of-town donors elevated the arts scene, the arts scene transformed the Downtown Mall.
“When I was hired in 1992, the Mall was radically different, a lot of empty storefronts, very little activity on the upper floors,” explained Kirby Hutto, current operations manager of the nTelos Wireless Pavilion. “There was still serious conversation about pulling the bricks up and writing it off.”
Then Hutto and his team (the now-defunct Charlottesville Downtown Association) began booking local talent to play at a small wooden stage on the Mall on Fridays, kickstarting the as-yet-unrealized experiment Fridays After Five.
“It changed the nature of the event,” Hutto said. “Now you’re coming to see your friends and neighbors.”
The coincidence of energy, patronage, and interest triggered more art. In the early ’00s, Gibson and his peers at Live Arts, Foolery, Gallery Neo, and Second Street saw a new generation of organizations follow in their footsteps: the Music Resource Center, the Performer’s Exchange Project, the Bridge PAI.
“Because it’s a small town, we all knew and helped each other,” Gibson said. “Charlottesville was just the right size, small enough that everyone knew each other and large enough that everyone had outside influences they could bring back.”
A new generation of leaders cropped up to drive the new organizations forward, and the scene felt stable and strong.
“In 2004 I felt like there was a really vibrant arts community, and I mean that on multiple tiers,” said Greg Kelly. “We had a lot of young artists coming out of UVA and sticking around. There was an abundance of space either due to Gabe Silverman’s generosity or lower rent costs. There were a lot of artists and things going on: various popup spaces, dance groups—things seemed diverse and abundant.”
Meanwhile, Fridays After Five filled Downtown restaurants, and when Coran Capshaw partnered with the city to build the Pavilion in 2004, the weekly draw became weatherproof.
“Between Live Arts, the ice park, restoration of the Paramount, the Jefferson—we hit critical mass of entertainment venues all within walking distance,” Hutto said. “That just caused it to pop.”
As Charlottesville’s cultural scene flourished, so did its reputation as a cool place to live. The town’s popularity skyrocketed and tourists became residents. Outside affluence began to pour in.
For Kelly, the change was significant.
“Lack of space and jobs and affordable housing, a higher cost of living—a lot of pressures took away what I would call the vibrancy of the underground,” he said. “Coran took the corner market on the music venues, and real estate became scarcer. Venues consolidated or closed.”
The survivors, as Kelly put it, were places like The Bridge that were fortunate enough to have patrons paying the bills.
Gibson described the shift with an illustration.
“In 1991 there were, within easy walking distance of Live Arts, four or five places I could go to buy spray paint,” he said. “By the time I left Charlottesville in 2011, there was no alternative but to get in your car and drive somewhere to get it. That homogenization made a lot of difference. When Woolworth’s becomes a boutique—when you can no longer buy a toilet plunger or a ball of twine on the Downtown Mall—then the activity of art-making will, of necessity, go elsewhere.”
Kelly laments the loss of this DIY spirit.
“It moved in the direction of upscale monoculture,” he said. “When the creative class and small businesses begin to get shoved aside by affluence—it’s not even gentrification, it’s culture-ification. It’s a classic thing that happens in New York and everywhere. The artists make a place popular and then people come in and destroy it.”
Gibson, on the other hand, saw the flattening landscape as part of a natural evolution. “The arts and the living room community became two different places,” he said. “When that’s the case, you’re not going to have the same sort of laboratory we had. It’s not perhaps a bad thing. It’s just different.”
Today, Charlottesville doesn’t feel especially edgy. You can still watch a play about vibrators or a performance artist smear her face with fruit juice, but Taylor Swift also performs live in concert in front of 13,000 screaming tweens.
In short, we’ve grown up. Become bigger and more commercial. The death late last year of Gabe Silverman reminded us that the city’s life cycle continues.