2008 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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EXPANDING OUR VISION: ROANOKE'S
STUNNING NEW TAUBMAN MUSEUM OF ART

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 10

 
The museum fielded a small army of volunteers in burnt-orange T-shirts to help with ticketing and crowd control and answer questions on opening day. But the best question may have come the day before, as volunteer Susan Shortridge worked the museum's hospitality table at Hotel Roanoke. Someone asked Shortridge if the opening of the museum was the biggest thing happening in Roanoke this weekend, she recalled.  D'oh!  "I said, 'This is the biggest thing that's happened in Roanoke in 40 years!' "
 
- "Taubman Unveiled," article by Kevin Kittredge, The Roanoke Times, November 9, 2008
 
 

That's rather amusing to relative newcomers like us who moved to Roanoke from other areas of the country. And now I'm curious what happened here forty years ago!

I've lived in a variety of environments during my life -- a sleepy little rural area east of Cincinnati growing up; bustling, intellectually-stimulating Columbus, Ohio during college; the dynamic, progressive, international Atlanta area for twenty-five years; and much smaller, wild-western Billings, Montana for five years before moving to the southern Appalachian region near Roanoke. Each rural, suburban, and urban area had its own history, culture, style, ethnic mix, proportion of "natives," and ways of adapting to progress.

Since moving to the Roanoke area in 2004 it's been interesting to watch the locals wrestle with various civic challenges that have arisen. There's the stadium that had to be torn down four years ago after a bad flood; the city and its residents still can't figure out how best to use that land. There are the venerable old City Market Building and the cultural Center in the Square downtown that both need interior renovations; both projects are mired in indecision and controversy.


Southwest corner of the City Market Building, which takes up an entire block (10-8-08)

What should we do with nearby Explore Park, which is no longer viable as a living-history park? And why not build a restaurant on top of scenic Mill Mountain in the middle of the city to draw more tourists and new residents? (Actually, we'd like to see both of those areas remain natural, so we're on the side of the Old Guard in those cases.)

Young professionals and other visionaries keep coming up with innovative solutions to problems, and suggestions to attract and retain other young professionals and visionaries . . . and they continue to be stymied by those who object to change. Despite a new medical school being built downtown and the intellectual vibrancy of the nearby "Tech Corridor" in Blacksburg and Christiansburg, Roanoke generally seems to cling to its railroad legacy and resist efforts toward modernization.

It's a wonder the stunning Taubman Museum of Art was even built here, considering the lather some folks worked themselves into! I suppose it was easier than some of the other stalled projects because most or all of the funding is private, not public. Appropriately, the museum is named for its largest donors, Jenny and Nicholas Taubman. Jenny spearheaded the fund-raising efforts for the $66 million project; she persuaded her husband, former CEO of Advanced Auto Parts, to make the largest contribution (rumored to be $25 million).

Pretty persuasive, eh?


Interior of museum atrium on opening night. Note projection of red light onto wall at center bottom
that pays subtle tribute to Advanced Auto Parts. Another photo I took credits a local TV station.

SWIRL OF CONTROVERSY

I've been anxiously awaiting opening day of the new museum since I first saw artist's renderings of the striking structure that would replace the woefully inadequate Art Museum of Western Virginia a few blocks away. I remember how excited I was when the High Museum of Art opened in Atlanta in 1983 -- what a beautiful, contemporary building! But it was not such an anomaly in that city with its wide range of architecture.

The dramatic museum design by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout quickly divided Roanoke residents into two camps: those who detested the radical design as out of place in their fair city (it was called everything from "a monstrosity" to "the Wreck of the Flying Nun") and those who eagerly sought a dynamic symbol of progress and culture in this part of the state.

These photos of nearby buildings on Salem Avenue will give you an idea of just how radical the new museum appears in juxtaposition:

Above and below: visitors waiting to enter the Taubman Museum on November 8

I'm used to such a mix of buildings in many cities around this country, but for some Roanokers, it was just too much to envision as the unusual structure was being built:


During construction of the Taubman Museum (5-7-07)

When Jim and I were trying to decide our departure date for this winter's sunbird trip to Arizona, my main criteria was that it be after the November 8 opening of the museum. I simply didn't want to miss it.

Neither did over 10,000 other visitors who enjoyed a free tour of the new museum on Saturday. Many folks now have a different perspective, literally and figuratively, of the structure after learning more about its design and seeing the beautiful spaces and art inside. Not that everyone has accepted the new museum, but at least now there are many more letters of praise than criticism in the local paper and its web site.


Salem Avenue side of the museum on opening day

Some people hope the ultra-modern building will transform Roanoke in the same manner the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, helped turn that city into an international tourist destination. I doubt that will happen any time soon in Roanoke, but I hope the museum will create some momentum toward other improvements in the city and region. The arts community has already grown in response to the new museum, upscale condos are being built downtown, new businesses are opening despite the dismal economy, and the nearby historic Hotel Roanoke has announced a $25 million renovation.


Balcony of the new museum overlooking the venerable Hotel Roanoke

To relate this to running, perhaps this new vibrancy and enthusiasm will even hasten the completion of our segmented greenway system! It'd be nice to have all the little one- to five-mile sections connected together for longer runs, walks, and rides. That's an urban amenity valued by both current residents and newcomers considering relocating here.

In this entry I'll share some of the photos I took on Saturday afternoon and evening at the grand public opening of the museum. Jim was busy all day with a fund-raiser for the Rescue Squad. We both had tickets for a 7 PM tour. I got another ticket for myself for the middle of the afternoon so I could enjoy the street festival (music, dance, and other performances like the graceful Cirikli Stilt Birds) and see the interior of the museum both in daylight and dark. I'm so glad I went in twice because there was so much to see and the building looks very different at night. It was also a bit less crowded then, which was a plus.


One of the Cirikli stilt birds entertains the opening day crowd, above left

There are many professional photos of the museum and a considerable chunk of information ahout it on the official museum website at www.taubmanmuseum.org. You can also find interactive displays of the museum, a tour of the inside and outside, a time-lapse of the construction, a timeline of events, and some of the art inside at artmuseum.roanoke.com, a site produced by the Roanoke Times news organization.

THE UNUSUAL DESIGN

The art museum's visitors' guide and map describes the building designed by architect Randall Stout as "a dramatic composition of flowing, layered forms in steel, patinated zinc, and high-performance glass paying sculptural tribute to the famous Blue Ridge Mountains that provide Roanoke's backdrop and shape the region's spirit."

The building itself is a piece of art and the first completed museum that Stout has designed from scratch. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Stout was a senior associate of the renowned Guggenheim architect Richard Gehry. Stout opened his own firm in Los Angeles in 1996. One of the temporary galleries at the Taubman Museum (below) shows photos and drawings of other buildings around the world that he has designed, as well as dozens of preliminary sketches he drew for this museum, models showing its metamorphosis, and a large stainless steel panel like the ones used for part of the building's exterior:

This exhibit runs through May 24, 2009.

The nature metaphor Stout used fascinates me, probably because of the visceral connection I feel to mountains and water. Stout spent months exploring the Roanoke Valley and nearby mountains before beginning work on his remarkable design. He envisions the building's roof as a ridgeline, its walls as rock ledges and layers of stone. Inside, the second-floor hallway curves around the eight galleries (think caves) like a river bed or gorge. Not only was the design inspired by nature, the building itself features environmentally-friendly materials and systems.


The ultra-modern Taubman Museum of Art (foreground, from Williamson Road)
and one of the few other modern buildings in Roanoke, the Wachovia Building (background). 11-8-08

The design is very complex inside and out, reminding me of a spaceship with lots of angles and layers. Stout is known for thinking differently about spaces than most everyone else. Yet he wanted the building to be inviting and comfortable for visitors, while showcasing the museum's various collections in the best light, so to speak. Although there is considerable diffused natural light in the atrium, the second-floor galleries are designed to provide flattering artificial lighting that protects and enhances the art.

The large expanses of glass not only allow visitors on the inside to look out in all directions at the sky, the surrounding city, and the distant mountains, they also reflect those same clouds, buildings, and mountains when viewed from the exterior:

As radical as it is, the building is supposed to blend in with its surroundings like that.

The outside of the building looks very different at night when the glass, stone, and metal faade is bathed in a morphing series of bright colors. I don't know if the building will be lit like this every night, but it was great fun on opening night. I took numerous photos with my camera on its "sports spectator" setting as the changing colors transformed the structure into an even more fascinating piece of art than it is during the daytime. These are just a few of the pictures I took from various angles on Salem Avenue and Williamson Road:

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 


 

Pretty cool, huh?

INTERIOR DESIGN

The museum has almost two thousand art objects in its permanent collection. Only a tiny fraction of them have been on display at one time in the former buildings the museum has occupied. There still isn't room to display near everything at one time, but now there is considerably more space -- and more appropriate settings -- for those permanent items, which will be rotated more frequently. There is also room for temporary visiting exhibits in several of the eight galleries on the second floor. But let's start with the grand entrance.

The Taubman has an airy glass atrium that allows light to permeate the large entrance lobby. The "prow" peaks 77 feet above the Turkish travertine marble floor. You've seen the peak in several photos above.

 

Interior and exterior walls are made of brushed zinc and local Hokie stone, a limestone native to western Virginia:

The first floor of the museum contains a theatre, Norah's Cafe (named for Norah Gibble, whose portrait by John Singer Sargent is one of the museum's signature pieces), a museum store, education studio, catering kitchen, art venture gallery, art loading dock, art storage areas, and an auditorium (below) where musicians provided entertainment on opening day:.

A grand staircase featuring backlit glass treads and maple wood risers with stainless steel handrails channels visitors to the second floor galleries:

The softly lighted stairs are particularly attractive at night.

I was fascinated with the play of light and color and shapes on the walls from the second-floor balcony in the atrium:

The second photo at the top of this entry was also taken from the balcony.

ART GALLERIES

Each of the eight galleries is very different and will change in some ways by the time we return from our winter trip. Museum displays must be dynamic to keep patrons coming back.

I was very happy to discover photography is allowed inside the museum as long as flash isn't used. I just set my camera to its "museum" setting -- very handy! In retrospect I wish I'd taken more photos of the art but getting good shots was difficult with so many people inside on opening day.

Following are some of the art works displayed in the galleries on opening day

Two AMERICAN ART GALLERIES displayed works from the museum's permanent collection. Highlights include works by Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and the Eakins-McDowell family. One of my favorites is this clever, humorous painting by Norman Rockwell of a clueless museum worker carrying a frame while the subjects in the three paintings on the wall look at him with amusement:


"Framed," by Norman Rockwell

A special exhibit featuring Italian (Florentine) baroque art was shown in the REGIONAL DECORATIVE ARTS GALLERY on opening day. Arts and crafts of the southern highlands will eventually be displayed in this gallery.

I enjoyed quite a few works in the large MODERN & CONTEMPORARY GALLERY, which focuses on art both in the museum's permanent collection and items that are on loan. This sculpture of a child gazing into a mirror was a crowd favorite:

Some of the visitors to the museum were works of art themselves. Check out this gal's hairstyle:

Jim had fun in the SPECIAL EXHIBITIONS GALLERY, which features temporary exhibits. One of the two current exhibits, "Rethinking Landscape," included contemporary landscape photography with some unusual large-scale perspectives, like a man in a suit supposedly jumping off a railroad trestle. This is just part of a large photo of a gazillion cell phones:

A second temporary exhibit entitled "The Cataclysmic Calm" features the evolution of the Taubman Museum from conception to final construction, as well as other works by architect Randall Stout. I already showed one view of this exhibit above (9th photo from the top).

There were very cool digital interactive displays entitled "Revo/Over" by The Digital Arts Research Collaborative in the MEDIA LAB. Some of the displays react to sight and sound in a real-time, virtual environment. Folks had a lot of fun in this darkened gallery. My favorite element here was the freaky wall of arms that were in constant virtual motion:

Another exhibit called "Pens and Needles: Drawings for Tattos" highlighted works of contemporary and historical body art in the REGIONAL GALLERY.

That leaves my very favorite gallery, the cozy SHAFTMAN GALLERY. I thoroughly enjoyed the playful garden-themed exhibit designed by museum architect Randall Stout, entitled "Earthly Delights," that showcases about thirty of the museum's hundred-plus Judith Leiber jewel-encrusted handbags:

My reaction to this gallery really surprised me. When one of the volunteers at the top of the stairs recommended that I visit this exhibit first, I frowned a bit and asked her why. She said I'd understand when I went through the tiny gallery. She was right.

I'm one of the few women in this country who hasn't carried a purse in ten years (since I retired and didn't have to lug so much *stuff* around with me). I use a small men's nylon wallet and slip my keys and phone in my pants pockets. Very feminine, I know. Every purse I've ever owned was purely for function, not decoration. I like fairly simple, classic clothing, shoes, jewelry, furniture, art, and just about everything else. 

Or so I thought.

I was drawn like a moth to light by these shiny, colorful, elaborate purses. They are reminiscent of those fancy, insanely expensive Faberge eggs. I would have taken a picture of every one of them in the exquisite display if there wasn't such a long line of people to see them! Volunteers said this was the most popular gallery on opening day.

Here are two of my favorite bags, one very sophisticated, one whimsical:

 


 

Volunteers heard lots of comments about the monkey!

I plan to show more photos from inside and outside the museum on our Picasa site by the end of November. There are just too many to include here and I want to showcase the beauty and wonder of the new museum and its displays.

OTHER SURPRISES

The museum holds lots of surprises for first-time visitors and I imagine I'll see something new about the building or its contents every time I visit in the future. Here are a couple examples.

Roanoke has several night-time icons, including the signature neon star on Mill Mountain and the neon Dr. Pepper and H & C Coffee signs on one of the buildings across the street from the new museum. It's fun to watch the coffee being "poured" into the cup as the sign morphs:

I realized after I downloaded my photos that many of the night shots I took both inside and outside of the museum show the reflection of the coffee sign on the atrium's glass:

The whole interplay of light and space in the museum is a continuous surprise in itself. There are so many interesting little details to notice that it's impossible to experience all of them in one visit.

Probably the biggest surprise of the art itself on opening day was the lifelike stuffed figurines by artist Mark Jenkins.

Like most visitors, I was concerned Saturday afternoon when I first saw a man lying on the floor facing the wall in the ornate Italian baroque gallery. Several people were gathered around him, and one hurried out to notify a volunteer at the door. When people started giggling and poking the poor fella, I realized this was art, not life and death!

But what a juxtaposition with the elaborate old 17th Century paintings in their large, gilded frames. It would have been less of a shock in one of the galleries with contemporary works of art. I wonder how many people still don't know that the unconscious "man" on the floor was a fake. In the photo below you can see the man's foot in the corner behind the large freestanding sculpture:

On our way back in to town that evening, I told Jim about the unconscious man but didn't tell him it was art. I was hoping he'd realize that when he first saw him lying in the same place I'd seen him four hours earlier -- and not rush to give him CPR!

I stayed behind Jim as we entered the gallery. Yep, there was the same "man" on the floor, surrounded by new victims of the museum's prank! Jim was a bit startled, then put two and two together and realized the guy wasn't real. He looked around to see my expression. Yes, I was laughing. I thought the whole thing was pretty funny.

However, the joke was still on me. What I didn't realize until reading the paper the next day was that another of these stuffed "people," a female figure, was perched precariously on the waist-high wall of the museum's outdoor balcony overlooking busy Williamson Road. When I was taking photos out there during both the afternoon and evening I could see a few people but didn't notice that one was in the same position each time. After cropping my photos, I know the blonde "woman" on the right is the fake one:

You can see her in several photos in this entry.

Several alarmed people driving under the balcony on Williamson Road called 911 during the day, reporting a possible suicide attempt! Museum staff finally turned the figure around so "she" faced the building and not the street -- and the calls stopped. At least one man who called 911 was not amused when told that it was "art." He sent an angry letter to the newspaper about it. (He probably still thinks the building is a monstrosity, too.) I'm not sure what the emergency operators thought about all this, but I hope they were clued into the joke before sending out any first responders.

PRIDE IN MY ADOPTED CITY

And so the Roanoke Valley has been thoroughly shaken up, in a good way (my opinion, at least). I'm proud of the visionaries who saw the need for a fine new art museum, the patrons who contributed $66 million to build it, and the people who will continue to support it. It's just one more thing for me to love about Roanoke.

It remains to be seen how large of an impact the Taubman Museum of Art will have on local citizens and whether it will be the cultural tourist draw its advocates expect. Between the burgeoning arts community and the new medical school and related facilities, Roanoke is becoming more attractive to young and old alike -- those who left and are coming back, those who considered leaving but decided to stay, those who have chosen to move here from elsewhere to work or retire.

Roanoke isn't just a railroad town any more.

The museum staff has many creative projects in store for us. As stated in the Users Guide published by the Roanoke Times for the opening, "The Taubman Museum is not just a repository for valuable art. It is also a living, changing cultural enterprise with a host of programs catering to a varied clientele. The museum will have educational programs for children and adults, lectures, music, film, children's live theater and other features . . ."

All the exhibits and programs will be designed to educate, entertain, and attract more people to the museum. I don't need much persuasion to become a patron myself. I hope people will be enticed to visit from all over the world and see what else makes the Roanoke Valley so special.

When I lived in Atlanta I volunteered for a variety of organizations. I haven't done much of that in the Roanoke area because we live so far out from the city and we travel so much. Some of the work I'd like to resume, such as pet therapy with Cody at a nursing homes, requires more continuity with the clients than I can offer right now. I'm so impressed with the new museum, however, that I'd like to volunteer there in some capacity when we return home in February. I'll do what I can when I'm available. I'd like to be more of a part of the organization than just being an occasional visitor.

Next entry: speaking of traveling . . . it's about time for us to hit the road again!

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater (in spirit)

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