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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 façade
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?
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
Each of the eight galleries is very different and will change in
some ways by the time we return from our winter trip. Museum
must be dynamic to keep patrons coming
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
"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,"
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).
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
Here are two of my favorite bags, one very sophisticated,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
Tater (in spirit)
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil