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  • Writer's pictureDenise Bishop

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by the Sandler Center Foundation

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Virginia Arts Festival

Interview by Denise Bishop. Images courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival.

This week, Spotlight Saturdays met with Robert W. Cross, Executive Director and Perry Artistic Director of the Virginia Arts Festival. In its 24th year, the Virginia Arts Festival brings world-renowned performers to Hampton Roads for a festival of music, theatre, and dance performances and arts education activities each year in April and May.

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement?  The mission of the Virginia Arts Festival is to bring world-class performing arts to our citizens and visitors, impact the lives of students through outstanding educational programs, commission new works of national and international significance, and make a tangible difference in Hampton Roads through regional partnerships and cultural tourism.

For programming, we have three or four big areas of focus. One is trying to bring in the really great, big artists from around the world to come to Hampton Roads, creating an opportunity for people who live here to see the best of the best. Also, when it makes sense, we want to showcase local arts organizations and partner with them. As you know we work with the symphony (Virginia Symphony Orchestra) a lot, the stage company (Virginia Stage Company), the opera (Virginia Opera). We work with a lot of the attractions and museums. Next, almost every artist that comes to the Festival does a workshop, master class, or student matinee. The fourth piece, which is one of the reasons we were formed, is to try to drive tourism in the shoulder season. Trying to create events that will drive people to come out of their homes and visit Hampton Roads in the spring.

Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra featuring Wynton Marsalis

What or who inspires and influences your work?  I’m a classical musician [Robert W. Cross is also Principal Percussionist with the VSO], so a large percentage of what the[Virginia Arts] Festival does is classical music. There are certain orchestras that influence me; Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra are the orchestras I grew up with.  For me as a percussionist: the people who were my mentors: John Lindberg [former Principal Timpanist with the VSO] was my teacher when I was a kid, Vic Firth [founder of Vic Firth Company, which makes percussion sticks and mallets] was my teacher when I was away at school, and my colleagues that I’ve been able to work with over the 30 years of my playing career.


What education programs are offered?  There are three different levels of engagement for our education programs. First, we offer student matinees where we bus students to the venues to see a performance. Even though these students may not take music or dance classes, they can see great artists and experience that in a real concert setting. Second, we have in-school experiences (lecture-demonstrations or mini-performances), which are a little more in depth, where our artists will go into the schools to work with students.  That might be a little more targeted — they might be doing it for, let’s say it’s Chanticleer, and they’re going in and working with all the vocal students. Or Amani Winds are working with the band students. Or going into a school like Booker T [Washington High School, in Norfolk] that has a dance class, so a student taking dance as an elective gets to work with a young professional dancer or dance instructor. And third, we offer even more in depth master class programs for students who are serious about their craft, whether it’s instrumentalists, singers, or dancers, to work side by side with a really gifted artist such as a workshop for Governor’s School students with a dance master from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important? There are several other really fantastic performing arts organizations in the community, but I think we’re probably the only one that has a true tourism part of their mission statement and economic development. We really put a lot of thought into how to move the needle for tourism.  And also for economic development, companies use the Festival as a tool when they’re recruiting people to move here. And when an economic development officer goes out to recruit businesses to move to Hampton Roads, the Festival will be in their packets of amenities in the region.

How have you and your staff been handling COVID? What have you been doing during the shutdown?  COVID came at a really inopportune time for us. Things got shut down around March 12th or 13th, and we were scheduled to start in the middle of April. We had 55 public performances to cancel, and I believe 75 education events scheduled in April and May. It’s a lot harder to unwind the Festival than it is to schedule it. The staff was as busy or busier than we would have been if the Festival was going on because you have to cancel concerts, unravel travel, production, be in touch with ticket-buyers, the halls, our donors, corporate sponsors. Just about this week are we starting to get on the other side.  About half everything we had programmed we were able to reschedule for 2022 or 2023, and then the other half just didn’t make sense to reschedule. They were either time-sensitive or they aren’t available. Now, we’re focusing on: how do we restart? We really are committed to helping the cities reopen when we can, even though it will be outside the Festival period. We’re working particularly with Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, and Norfolk on how we can create some concerts and activities as soon as it’s safe to do it again. They just need to get people out going to the restaurants, going to the shops. So, now we feel like we’re in a holding pattern – trying to make good plans and know when we need to activate them. 

How are you helping your staff and artists during this time? We’re trying to keep morale up because everybody deals with this in a different way, whether you’ve got children or elderly parents. We’re trying to make people feel taken care of, that they still have a job, that they’re safe. For artists, we’ve worked as hard as we could to get as many artists as we could rescheduled because they all need the income. Especially some of the  smaller chamber ensembles or dance groups who have no money coming in.

What’s the biggest change to educational programs? Right now, we’re working with artists that we have relationships with that have content available online. A lot of the dance companies in particular have been putting out a lot of classes and masterclasses, and we’re sharing that with our schoolteachers and our audience base who are hopefully sharing that with their kids. And then, we’re in the planning phase of figuring out how to deliver content to students this fall. Hopefully, they’ll go back to school in the fall, but I can’t imagine they’ll have much bandwidth for field trips and artists coming to their schools, so how can we deliver content, even when schools start back, especially for the first half of the year.

Mandolin Orange

Mandolin Orange

What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve learned during this time?  I would say the most encouraging thing is that donors and corporate sponsors that have the ability have really stepped up to help us and other arts organizations through this. There’s so much demand on social services for obvious reasons, but I think people have worked hard to make sure that the performing arts organizations are going to be able to get through this period and be there when we get on the other side of it.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced? I think the biggest challenge is uncertainty, in terms of not knowing when we can start back. (Laughing) We’re already rescheduling some things we rescheduled. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and with other big catastrophes, you always feel like you have a beginning, an end, and a recovery. I don’t feel like we’re in recovery yet.

What are some passion projects that you hope to work on while we are “paused”?  Well, for me, since the orchestra is closed down too, it’s actually been enjoyable to practice when I don’t have any concerts. I’m probably in better shape right now than I am during the season because in the season we could have three different programs in a given week. So, between rehearsals and performances, there’s no time to practice. It’s really fun to walk into practice and say, “What do I want to play today?” I can play scales or I can play all the stuff I haven’t played for 15 years, so that’s kinda fun. Not that I can’t wait to be on stage again actually playing for the public, but it is fun to have a little bit of bandwidth to be in shape and just play for pure enjoyment.

What advice do you have to artists trying to work on their craft? We work with a lot of chamber music groups and soloists, and my advice right now as a musician, assuming this could easily go on for another 3 or 6 months or a year, is be creative about how you can deliver content. If we can’t gather for concerts with audiences, you’re going to have to figure out a way to find something that’s engaging. It’s tough – I’ve seen some really, really good stuff out there, but it’s just not the same as being in a concert hall. It can be great playing, but coming through TV speakers or an iPad, it’s just not the same. And for students, this is a gift: they have time right now.  If they’ve got a good teacher, they can get a good lesson online through Zoom. And for people who are serious musicians, in their teens or college age, there is no reason in the world you’re not practicing 4-6 hours a day right now.

What do you need during this time?  I’d say it’s probably financial, though I’m more worried about next year. This year, we were close enough to the end of the fiscal year and people have stepped up to help us, so we will probably have a small loss but it really won’t be catastrophic. I think next year is going to be even more challenging, financially. Even if we can do concerts, what is the comfort level of the public going to be? Typically in Chrysler Hall we might hope to have 2000 people or in Sandler 1100 people, but if we have to safe-distance, we might only put 500 people in Chrysler Hall or 400 people in Sandler Center. For those that have the ability to help the arts organizations financially, I think that’s going to be the greatest need for the next year. Being very conscious of the need that social services are going to have for the short term and long term, don’t forget the arts organizations because you want them to be there when we get on the other side. We want the opera to be there, the symphony and the stage company.

In what ways are you being proactive for re-opening?  Our goal is that next April and May we can have something that resembles a normal Festival, but I’m telling the staff to be prepared that we can’t, and if we can’t, then how can we deliver content? Let’s say we had Candadian Brass coming, if they can’t play a concert at Sandler Center or Chrysler Hall, do we still bring them in and tape it and stream the concert? How do we present the arts to people if they can’t gather?

Where are you in your planning for next year? What’s your plan for subscribers or members if you know that already?  We’re full speed ahead in planning for next year. I’m probably 75% through booking next year’s Festival because I’ve had the time to do it and artists are hungry to work. So for us the question will be: when do we feel comfortable announcing it? We typically announce the season in mid- October. Are we going to feel comfortable doing it then, or are we going to wait a little bit?

Jason Isabel and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Williamsburg Live 2021 headliner

What do you hope to return to? What do you hope the future of the arts looks like?  Well, I love what we do, so my hope is that, whether it’s 6 months from now or a year from now, that we’re back to where we were before. To me there’s nothing more exciting than being in the Sandler Center or Chrysler Hall or the Ferguson Center with a full house seeing Joshua Bell or Alvin Ailey or Kristin Chenoweth. The act of experiencing the arts with people is really, really powerful. I want to figure out how to remain relevant and healthy as an organization until we get back to that point, but I want to get back to that point where we can do it again.

What conversations do we need to be having right now? Are you seeing those happening? I think that we’ve all got to be talking to our elected officials. I know they’re dealing with incredibly important issues in terms of schools, social services that are immediate needs. But let’s not lose sight of how important the arts are in Hampton Roads. It’s a big part of our economy in terms of tourism and in terms of quality of life for everybody. I think we’ve got to be sensitive to what’s going on, but we can’t disappear because there are so many things pressing on the needs. If we do disappear, there are plenty of things that are going to fill the vacuum. In my circle of colleagues, we’re talking with our elected officials on a regular basis.

What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown?  Being in a concert hall for a live performance. That’s the first thing I’m looking forward to. The second is going to a good restaurant and having a good meal and a good bottle of wine with friends. It’s a close second. As much as [my wife] Debbie’s been doing some great cooking, I miss my friends.

Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about? Sure! One of the things that was supposed to happen in the Festival is a Michaelangelo exhibit at MacArthur Center for three weeks during the spring. It’s these beautiful images, facsimiles from the Sistine Chapel. So, we have the exhibit; it’s in crates at MacArthur Center, and we’re hoping to open it for three weeks in August. MacArthur Center is reopened, so the plan is it gets installed the first week of August and will open either the second or third week of August for three weeks. We’re really excited about it! It’s really beautiful. It will give people a chance to get out. We’re working really closely with other museums on understanding how to operate a museum safely in terms of one-way paths, everything’s touchless. And I think regardless of what your religion is, it’s a little timely to go see something so beautiful. You can go there for a few minutes and maybe just contemplate it. So I’m looking forward to that.

Anything else you want to talk about?  We’re very grateful for the way the community has stepped up, for us specifically, and for all the arts organizations, helping us through this difficult time. We want them to know that we’re doing everything we can to make good decisions and be there on the other side of this pandemic.

Where can people find you (for classes, donations, etc)? Visit our webpage! Our team has done a really good job with what we call the Virtual Festival. We’re putting out a weekly e-blast of what’s going on during the Festival. We’re in the last month of our fiscal year, so we’ve got a pretty active campaign right now to close out the Annual Fund. Events that have been rescheduled are already on the website calendar. We’re also sharing information on social media. (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @VaArtsFest,  YouTube: @VaArtsFestival)

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