Roanoke, VA: Parks and Arts

Dancers in a variety of costumes on stange in front of a large Parks and Arts banner
Photo courtesy of Southwest Virginia Ballet

How can a small city increase access to the arts and create opportunities for its local artists outside of traditional venues?

For a city with a well-developed park system, but with limited opportunities for local artists to present in those parks, Roanoke developed a Parks and Arts program that commissions local artists to develop hands on visual art activities and performances for city parks. This opportunity connects residents with art—without expecting them to leave their neighborhood or travel to a museum in a cultural district. “Parks and Arts” addresses multiple objectives with a single program, broadening access to art while giving local artists needed access to commissions.


Roanoke, a city of 97,000 people in southwest Virginia, has long been an important area in the region’s industrial economy and is well linked within the area’s transportation infrastructure. Near the junction of Interstates 81 and 581, freight rails wind their way through the city, just as the Roanoke River does. Along the river and throughout the city, parks animate the urban landscape. With 60 parks and four sections of greenways, the city has a large number of open space resources.


Like many cities however, Roanoke does not have the money it needs to maintain all of its parks, and a few are now perceived as uninviting to residents. For the city parks, this financial need is exacerbated by the fact that Roanoke has seen its economy slide in recent decades. As the region’s industrial activity slows down, the city has many pockets where communities live with pressing economic challenges. More than half of city residents live at 200% of the poverty level or less. “Many families believe that access to music and art is beyond their means,” says Susan Jennings, Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Roanoke.


Even though there was a lot of physical space dedicated to parks in Roanoke, the parks were not always integrated into the day-to-day lives of residents. Many parks didn’t have the equipment or programming needed to support active engagement, and so they remained underutilized. The arts community had very limited access to economic opportunity as well, and their public work was often perceived as something for more prosperous communities, rather than being a part of smaller neighborhoods accessible to everyone. Collectively, there was a need to make the case for the arts, as an integral component of community life, and to give artists more opportunity to create and exhibit new works.


As a way to address these concerns, the Roanoke Arts Commission (RAC) proposed, what was then called, the Neighborhood Arts Initiative. Rather than consolidate art in a museum and expect people to come experience it, RAC would bring the art to communities. Taking advantage of the city’s robust inventory of parks, the plan would re-imagine park space as a venue to present public art, and so they renames the progam “Parks and Arts.” This would have the added benefit of activating some of the city’s less well-used parks, and enhancing the livability of certain neighborhoods. RAC also wanted to link art installations with educational opportunity in such a way that art would never just be an object in an open space, but would serve as the site for gathering and learning.


The Roanoke Arts Commission took the lead in articulating the vision, but it partnered closely with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra to implement it. Together, the organizations developed programming and strategies to implement the Parks and Arts program. Because they already had active programs with devoted audiences, the Taubman Museum of Art and other arts organizations were tapped to help program the different elements. The orchestra coordinated the contracting and payment of all performers, artists and sound needs, while the art museum coordinated "Art is Happening" which took place in Jackson Park and included the Southwest Virginia Ballet, Opera Roanoke and Mill Mountain Theatre for a fully integrated arts presentation.


The partners began their work eight months in advance of their opening date by initiating a conversation with different neighborhood groups and residents to gauge local needs. Through these conversations, they were able to clarify their goals for the Parks and Arts program. They then set out to distribute application forms to organizations and individual artists to participate, hoping to attract (and fund) as many local artists as possible. They chose six parks representing the four quadrants of Roanoke, and developed a schedule that would allow for the activation of these parks at different times. And throughout their work, publicity was key both before and during the programming. Susan Jennings from Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Roanoke said, “We planned an internal and external strategy where we could use city channels but also call on our partners to help with communications.”


The best impact, as Jennings put it, was “taking the arts to over 2,500 people in their own back yard!” The project activated seven city parks between June and October of 2012, with different types of visual art and performances for audiences that ranged from 80 to 2700 attendees. Each of the 7 events had 5 to 6 performances along with various family activities. This program, as included in the original vision, increased the livability of these neighborhoods, transforming parks from underutilized open spaces to sites of neighborhood activity. The artists benefited, too. In a city where many artists are asked to work pro bono, the initiative was able to pay them directly for their work, expanding the economic opportunity for those involved with arts and culture. The project was able to help the partner organizations as well—the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and the Taubman Museum of Art— as they were able to expand their audiences to reflect a broader array of Roanoke residents.


Organizers report that they were favorably surprised by the amount of positive coverage in the media, citing local newspapers and blogs that highlighted the initiative in their arts coverage. A local radio station invited RAC to do on-air interviews about programs twice before each event. The station has since expanded its arts content. Because of the innovative programming, artists were also brought into new relationships with each other. Some of these collaborations have gone on even after the initiative contracts ended. For example, the Taubman Museum, Opera Roanoke, Southwest Virginia Ballet and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra will once again collaborate on a presentation for Parks and Arts 2014. Jennings reports that many neighborhoods whose parks were not chosen for this particular round have since asked her, ‘when are we getting Parks and Arts in our neighborhood?,’ which she takes as a big measure of success.


Roanoke City launches Parks and Art Program (

  • City of Roanoke
  • Roanoke Symphony Orchestra  
  • In-kind support from media sponsors

Build strong partnerships by involving key groups from the beginning. For this project was key to have the Parks Department director and the Neighborhood Services director together on the core committee.