Bursting the U.Va. Arts Bubble

Why students should stop overlooking Charlottesville’s thriving local arts scene

It’s hard to spend more than a few minutes in Charlottesville without spotting a bold “V” framed by a pair of crossed sabers. This iconic University of Virginia logo appears everywhere from t-shirts to storefronts. It’s even painted on the asphalt of many of our roads. And that’s just one example of the University’s presence. Students get discounts at local restaurants and grocery stores. Hotels book up for big games and parent’s weekend. And the U.Va. hospital is by far the area’s largest economic engine.

This “college town” atmosphere can be great. It’s part of the reason Charlottesville is such a vibrant and engaging community. It gives the city a rallying point and a sense of collective pride. Few institutions unite communities the way universities are able to.  However, a college town atmosphere also has its consequences. It can create an unwarranted sense of analogousness between the school and the city. To many students, Charlottesville is a mere extension of the University. The downtown mall becomes a place we go on Saturdays for a hung-over brunch. The rolling hills to our west become the country road to Foxfield. Students patronize restaurants and businesses throughout the city. But do we ever really leave U.Va.?

Nowhere is the “U.Va. bubble” atmosphere more prominent and divisive than in the art community. This is because art isn’t like most businesses. It doesn’t benefit from an influx of disengaged college consumers. Instead, art requires active participation – it’s communal. Art is about engaging in new things and opening up to new people. In some places this is easy. Freshmen at urban schools like NYU enroll with the expectation that the local art scene will be a major part of their college experience. U.Va. students don’t come to Charlottesville with that same expectation. We instead come expecting a university-oriented community and that becomes our self-fulfilling reality. U.Va. is what we know and it’s comfortable. Why leave the familiarity of a cover band on Rugby Road to see a local jazz group with a bunch of strangers? Engaging in the art community requires being open-minded toward something that doesn’t feel like the “college town” Charlottesville we know.

That’s a shame because just as much as Charlottesville is a “college town,” it’s also an “art town.” The city is home to countless music venues from The Garage, a literal garage for public street-side events, to the Sprint Pavilion, one of Virginia’s premier outdoor concert spaces. Charlottesville also boasts The Paramount, an award winning historical theatre, the McGuffey Center, one of the oldest co-op art spaces in the United States, and the Virginia Film Festival, an internationally renowned annual celebration of film. What truly makes the city’s art community special, however, is what happens on the grassroots level. It is the dozens of street musicians who dot the downtown mall every weekend. It is the murals that pop up regularly on building facades. And it is the tight-knit group of amateur artists and fans that make it all possible.

It’s astounding, then, how removed U.Va. students are from Charlottesville’s core art community. We’re quick to laud the city’s ability to draw high-profile artists like Cherub and The Avett Brothers. We flock to these shows. But that excitement vanishes when Lord Nelson plays The Southern. The irony is that Charlottesville needs engaged grassroots support to attract these national acts. A town of 49,000 isn’t supposed to be a spot on Bon Iver’s tour. But we are. Charlottesville’s citizens and elected officials have chosen to make the arts a priority. The city invests in infrastructure such as the Downtown Mall and the free trolley to makes art spaces more accessible. Consistent high attendance gives venues the financial resources and the name recognition to pursue national acts. The art scene can only prosper if local art prospers.

As university students, we are in a unique position to offer this needed local support. Students are widely considered tastemakers in the art community. Proportionally, we budget more for entertainment than any other demographic. University students also generally tend to be intellectually and culturally inquisitive. We are more likely to explore a variety of genres and styles in the arts. U.Va. is essentially an untapped market consisting of thousands of curious potential art consumers. That’s why we should be an active presence at The Southern and The Ante Room for local acts . We should see an art opening or performance piece at the Garage every once in a while. We should visit the Art Park and check out the work going on in Studio IX. Supporting local institutions isn’t just good for the venues and the community; it’s good for us. With the amount of high-quality and affordable work available in the Charlottesville art community, there’s no reason not to engage. If we break the U.Va. bubble, we make our community a more united and inclusive place. Charlottesville as a “college town” doesn’t encompass all of the city’s residents. But Charlottesville as an “art town” can.

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