Image: Artist Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Arts Commission Treasurer Meighan Sharp, and Arts and Culture Coordinator Douglas Jackson at the dedication of Jones’ “Rhapsody in Knowledge” at Melrose Library in January 2020.

Nurturing a Vibrant Arts Community

Douglas Jackson, Arts and Culture Coordinator for the Roanoke Arts Commission (RAC), has his work cut out for him. Wearing many hats in a part-time role, Jackson leads the efforts for RAC in establishing Roanoke as a vibrant, prosperous community where arts and culture engage people in all aspects of life.

“I definitely stay busy, but it’s work I enjoy,” said Jackson.

Jackson is filling the shoes of long-time Arts and Culture Coordinator Susan Jennings, who retired in July 2019. Jackson has worked on the Commission in various roles for years. In the early 2010 and 2011, he was a member of a steering committee of citizens that was tasked with developing an arts and cultural plan for Roanoke. Through public workshops, surveys, and interviews with stakeholders, the committee asked the community what they hoped to accomplish through arts and culture.

The result was the “Roanoke Arts and Cultural Plan” which the City Council adopted in April 2011, making it a part of the city’s Vision 2001/2020 Comprehensive Plan.

“It was really exciting because this was the first time Roanoke had attempted something like this,” said Jackson, “and we’ve accomplished 75% of the plan. I think that’s a testament to our in-depth conversations with the community. We really made an effort to understand what they wanted, and our work paid off.”

Impact of Arts in Roanoke

If you live or have visited Roanoke in the last decade, you’ve likely noticed the impact of “Art for Everyone” on Roanoke’s landscape. One prominent project is Elmwood Art Walk, which features sculptures surrounding a specified theme in Downtown Roanoke’s Elmwood Park. New sculptures are rotated in every few years, the newest batch being “Roanoke Rising,” which was installed in May 2019.

Additional projects include Little Free Libraries, started through a partnership with citizen Dan Kuehl, an art teacher at Breckenridge Middle School, and the Wasena Mural, in which Philadelphia artist Jared Bader painted the underneath side of the Wasena Bridge along the Roanoke River Greenway.

But perhaps what Jackson is most excited during his own tenure as Arts and Culture Coordinator is how art can impact the community. “Art is valuable in and of itself, but our question is, how do we take things we’re passionate about, like art, and connect that with community development?” said Jackson.

“Passion points like art, dance, music, and literature are excellent ways to engage the community,” said Jackson. “We’re not asking them to come to a meeting about community development. Instead we leverage the things they’re enjoying and doing anyways to enhance community development.”

For example, Thunder of Roanoke offers an all-age drum corps and indoor winds programs. “A group of adults wanted to play in a marching band, even thought they had graduated from high school or college,” said Jackson, “so they formed a group that allowed them to continue playing.”

“This is an excellent way to bring people together around music. Art helps people work together,” said Jackson. “Our job is to facilitate groups like this so that people can become more deeply rooted in the Roanoke community.”

“Strong organizations equals strong neighborhoods, which equals strong cities,” said Jackson. “And at the heart of it, that’s really our goal in all of this.”

Looking Ahead

When the Public Arts Program was established in 2003, Roanoke was experiencing a general decline in population and economy. But Jackson is excited to use Roanoke’s recent growth to guide conversations around arts and culture. “Are we growing the way we want to grow? Are there specific ways we want Roanoke’s arts and culture to grow in the next ten or twenty years?” asked Jackson. “These are questions that we asked back in 2003, and we’ve seen great success in. Now we have an extraordinary opportunity to keep effecting change in Roanoke.”

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