Sunday, March 20, 2005
Building for the future
New art museum in downtown Roanoke bids to reshape the region
|Interactive graphic: Tour the building, hear the architect describe his work and see more photos of the design.|
Message board: What do you think of the new design?
Take a look at Roanoke's future.
It's big, bold and full of fresh curves. It takes chances. It welcomes change.
The new Art Museum of Western Virginia by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout is a far cry from what museum officials envisioned almost seven years ago, when they realized that they were out of room at Center in the Square.
It has morphed from a conservative building renovation to a walk on the wild side. From a quest for more space, it has turned into a quest for international fame.
How the project changed is a story of need, chance and chutzpah, but change it did. Project leaders no longer talk about more exhibit space so much as the economic transformation of a region - one that saw flat growth throughout the longest peacetime expansion in American history, and has watched some industries die or fade away.
The 75,000-square-foot building, to be on what is now a downtown parking lot across the railroad tracks from the O. Winston Link Museum, will have two-and-a-half times the gallery space of the current museum. It also will include a cafe, bookstore, auditorium and extensive educational programs - possibly in concert with Virginia Tech. Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the university hopes to work with the museum on "teacher education and technology infrastructure development," but details are not worked out.
"The new building will provide the art museum with the space necessary to implement new, innovative education and outreach programs" that can benefit everyone, said Georganne Bingham, executive director of the museum, which is a non-stock, nonprofit corporation. "The possibilities ... are truly extraordinary."
Many things about the project are in flux. No firm date has been set for a groundbreaking, though museum officials hope it will open in 2007. The project's cost is a secret, though there are indications it has grown substantially from the initial estimate of $30 million-$35 million. Bingham called the cost "a moving target."
Just last week, the museum's board of directors voted not to include an IMAX theater in the project, though one had long been in the plans. Recent studies have questioned the profitability of an IMAX, and museum officials apparently were leery of the red ink. "It was decided by the board that it was not the best use of the museum's available resources," said Heywood Fralin, museum board president. Eliminating the IMAX could bring project costs down.
Two things seem clear from talking to those close to the project, who include some of the biggest names in the Roanoke Valley's business world and represent much of its wealth:
It's going to happen. And nobody is thinking small.
"This is going to be as transformational for Roanoke as the railroad," said fund-raising chairwoman Jenny Taubman, echoing the words that seem to be on many people's lips these days. Taubman is the wife of former Advance Auto Parts Chairman Nicholas Taubman.
"We think there is an excellent chance that this project could be transformational for downtown and the region," said Ed Murphy, president and chief executive office of Carilion Health System.
"We've lost a lot of important industries," explained Fralin, chief executive officer of Medical Facilities of America. "We've lost a lot of critical jobs. It's important for us to create economic development that can sustain the Roanoke Valley for a long time. It's not going to just happen."
The new art museum, Fralin and others say, can be a big part of the answer. "And the beauty of it is, it adds to the quality of life."
But is it Roanoke?
"Does it matter?"
Talk of reinventing Roanoke is not all wishful thinking. Economic impact studies, which the museum has not released, predict a windfall, according to Fralin: $1 million a year in new state and local tax revenues of various kinds, $30 million a year in new spending and hundreds of spinoff jobs in hotels, restaurants and the like.
The risks seem obvious, and are being discussed in public and private: The museum, with an increase in staff from 20 to 55 and in its annual operating budget to an estimated $3.7 million, could become a money pump, sucking the lifeblood from other cultural attractions. (The museum refused to release its current operating budget. Museum director Bingham also noted that without the IMAX, the estimated operating costs of the new museum should go down). People may not find its collection worth a second visit. Building costs could spiral out of hand. Operating costs could run higher than expected, and revenues lower. The expected tourists may not come.
Other communities have built new art museums or additions in recent years. Not all the museums have thrived. Washington state's Bellevue Art Museum opened an innovative new building in January 2001 - and closed its doors, broke, in September 2003. "We were not successful in getting broad-based community support," board President Rick Collette told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time.
"There have been some spectacular public failures," said Valeta Pittman, a former Roanoke museum board president who helped choose the architect. "I think we've learned from that. We keep testing the numbers over and over again."
"It's our responsibility not to go over budget," Fralin said. "That's one reason we're proceeding one step at a time."
A need for more space
Where to start the story of Roanoke's new museum? Maybe in a Roanoke bagel shop, where Heman Marshall, of the high-octane legal firm Woods Rogers, ran into Judy Larson, the art museum's executive director at the time.
It was Aug. 5, 1998. "She said, 'Have you seen the paper?'" recalled Marshall, a museum board member and later president. Roanoke's Cartledge family, owners of the Grand Home Furnishings empire, was donating their former downtown store to Center in the Square.
It looked like the answer to the museum's dreams. From its early days as a South Roanoke art center, the museum had grown into a fully accredited institution at Center in the Square, the city's arts and cultural hub. Indeed, it had grown so much that it was bursting at the seams. Yet there was little space in the existing building to expand. The building also posed a threat to valuable artworks from the arrangement of its water pipes, museum officials believed. And they needed higher ceilings for larger works of art.
There had been discussions about renovating the existing space. Now, there was a whole new building in the mix.
"The two of us talking over bagels said, 'We need to talk to somebody quickly,'" Marshall recalled.
Soon the art museum was the leading candidate to move into the soon-to-be vacant Grand building at Campbell Avenue and First Street Southwest.
A defining collection
Of course, it really begins before that - with Peggy Macdowell Thomas, childless heir to one of America's greatest painters, and a Roanoke resident. It was long an open secret that the best art museum of Western Virginia was her modest house in South Roanoke, where the first-floor walls were hung with portraits by the Philadelphia realist Thomas Eakins and his gifted wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins. Peggy Thomas, Susan Eakins' great-niece, died November 16, 2001, at age 89. Though courted in her lifetime by museums in Philadelphia, she left her art and artifacts - even her house - to the Roanoke museum.
It was one more reason the museum needed a better showcase.
Years before her death, Thomas' expected bequest already had caught the attention of Heywood Fralin, chief executive of a nursing home chain and sole administrator of the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust. The trust was begun by Fralin's brother, developer Horace Fralin, before his death in 1993; it had assets of more than $40 million by 2003.
In the late 1990s, Fralin began using trust money to buy 19th and early 20th century American paintings to complement the expected bequest. The trust has now bought about 30 works for the museum, 16 of which have been made public. The paintings that the museum has unveiled so far are by some of the biggest names in the American art world at the turn of the 20th century: Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer. The Fralin Trust also is expected to contribute to the new building.
According to Jenny Taubman, Horace Fralin had wanted his trust fund dollars to be used for something really big.
So what would he say about the new museum?
"If it creates the economic development we think it will create, I think he would be very supportive," said his brother.
End of a grand design
The Grand building, which the company had occupied since 1966 and was their flagship store into the 1990s, was not the city's most innovative or attractive building. But there was plenty of room there for the Eakins collection - not to mention anything else the museum was likely to acquire for years to come. At 75,000 square feet, it had roughly three times the museum's current space.
Ideas began to flow. Streets behind the building might be closed to traffic, and the area between the building and Warehouse Row turned into a public space, bordered by restaurants, galleries and shops. Across the First Street Bridge, Henry Street, once the central artery of the city's black business district, might flourish again. "It sounded very cool," said Larson, now executive director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
The project also would nudge downtown development farther west, away from the revitalized Roanoke City Market, which already was a success story.
But along with a closer look came misgivings. The Grand building, it turned out, was not really one building, but several, under multiple facades - a kind of Chinese box. Such a building could make achieving the museum's strict humidity and temperature requirements a nightmare.
"There were some issues there," said Pittman, the museum board president at the time. "Nonetheless, we were interested." Interested, that is, until Boston-based architect and museum consultant E. Verner Johnson told them how much renovations might cost: $20 million.
The question was obvious: For that kind of money, why not just build a new museum?
-- Coming tomorrow: A new plan.