Roanoke has no shortage of yearly festivals. There are fests for strawberries, craft beer, chicken wings and bacon, gatherings for Greece, India and Lebanon, Local Colors celebrating immigrant communities, the Henry Street Heritage Festival honoring African American communities and the spring stalwart, Festival in the Park.
Yet despite some valiant past attempts, the city does not have an annual festival dedicated to showcasing the full range of its arts offerings. The organizers of the Star City Arts Festival, which takes place from 3 to 9 p.m. Aug. 24 in Elmwood Park, hope to permanently fill that void.
The festival is the brainchild of Roanoke Symphony Orchestra board member Lori Strauss. At a July 31 reception held in the RSO offices at Campbell Avenue and Williamson Road Southeast, she addressed an audience of artists and representatives from cultural nonprofits.
“You don’t know how it makes me feel to see all of you gathered in this room, because it makes my dream tangible.”
Admission will be free. Selected artists will have tents to display their wares and arts organizations will put on demos and performances.
True to Roanoke festival form, there will also be wine, beer, food trucks and non-classical music. The entire shindig culminates at 7 p.m. with Symphony Under the Stars, a free concert by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra — the group overseeing the festival.
“Everyone has been super excited, has been so kind and agreeable to join us,” said RSO Executive Director David Crane. “It is going to be great.”
The Star City Arts Festival will be the first public event sponsored by the Roanoke Cultural Endowment.
“It’s important that the first thing we’re sponsoring is a collective,” said Shaleen Powell, the endowment’s executive director.
The endowment was created in 2014 with the blessings of the Roanoke City Council, the idea being that it eventually will provide lifelines for arts organizations by assisting with their operations budgets. However, the endowment won’t be giving out those grants until it has received enough private donations and city allocations to reach $20 million, a goal that’s still years away.
In 2018, the endowment received a gift from a donor who wanted the money to benefit Roanoke arts immediately. The festival sponsorship comes from that donation, Powell said.
“It’s not money that’s coming out of the restricted endowment fund,” she said.
The endowment also used that gift to fund a series of workshops meant to help Roanoke arts and cultural organizations work together to create long-term strategic plans.
“Collective programming is actually something that was addressed during that whole strategic planning workshop series,” Powell said.
Strauss said she has wanted to see an arts festival in Roanoke since she moved here almost 30 years ago. Her inspiration comes from An Occasion for the Arts, a 50-year-old festival held every October in Williamsburg.
“When I looked further into what they did, it wasn’t just the visual arts and the performing arts.” she said. “It was the culinary arts and the literary arts.”
The inaugural Star City Arts Festival reflects that expanded notion, with Virginia Western Community College’s Al Pollard Culinary Program listed as a participating organization, and a Roanoke Public Libraries book giveaway one of the touted events.
At the reception, RSO Executive Director David Crane described Strauss approaching him with the request, “Could we do something with all of the arts and culture groups in the city?” He told the gathered crowd that at first he was skeptical, but quickly realized, “This is actually a really great opportunity, and the right time.”
In 2007, the city mounted a Roanoke Arts Festival, which lasted two years. The now-defunct Arts Council of the Blue Ridge tried to keep it going for a third year. Both versions involved events spaced out over several days in multiple venues, with admission charges. The new festival takes places in one afternoon in one spot, and it’s free.
Nor are the artists and arts organizations being charged to take part. Sponsorships from the endowment, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and the city will allow RSO to provide volunteer labor, tents and other amenities.
As an educational component of the festival, the sponsorships also are funding a scholarship for the Summer Music Institute for Roanoke Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Organizers have declined to discuss specifics of the festival’s costs. Strauss said that comparing the estimated expenses to the variety of the festival offerings to visitors, “I don’t think it’s a lot of money.”
Sandra Meythaler, executive and artistic director of Roanoke Ballet Theatre, said RBT’s performance will serve as sampler, with classical and contemporary dance and tango demonstrating the company’s range.
Opera Roanoke General Director Brooke Tolley said that the opera won’t perform, instead using the festival to promote its upcoming production of the Italian opera “Pagliacci.”
“No one knows how to pronounce that,” she said, so the opera plans to hold a humorous contest at its booth. “We’re going to give out free tickets if people can pronounce the name of our show correctly.”
“It feels like an invitation to part of something cool, and I’m grateful to be part of it,” said Roanoke artist Katherine Devine.