Back for Its Next Act: The Arts Council of the Valley

“The great artists of the past were aware that human life is full of chaos and suffering. But they had a remedy for this. And the name of that remedy was ‘beauty’. The beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy. It shows human life to be worthwhile.”

― Roger Scruton

In anticipation of World Art Day on April 15, The Phil decided to take a moment to spotlight the Arts Council of the Valley (ACV), a nonprofit that has nourished the arts in its community for over twenty years. We sat down with ACV’s executive director, Jenny Burden, to learn more about the organization and the work it’s doing in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

ACV’s Origins

In 1998, the City of Harrisonburg built the Court Square Theater in the remains of the old Rockingham Motor Company, which had been defunct for the past few decades. The city hoped the theater would give community members a reason to come back downtown, after abandoning the area in favor of the shiny, new shopping mall that was built on the other side of the interstate.

By the year 2000, a group of community members and business owners sat down on the stage of the Court Square and established an organization to operate the new theater, as well as to nourish arts in the area through grants. The Arts Council of the Valley was born.

While current ACV executive director Jenny Burden wasn’t on the stage that pivotal day, her arrival to Harrisonburg was not far behind. By 2002, the Burdens and their two young children relocated to Harrisonburg from Northern Virginia. After studying art history and actively participating in the arts community in the D.C. area, “I was very, very happy to learn that Harrisonburg had an arts council,” Burden said. She went on to become an integral part of the organization, first as a board member, and now as the executive director – a role which she has held for the past seven years.

Jenny Burden, executive director of the Arts Council of the Valley.

“The mission of the Arts Council of the Valley is to cultivate the arts and to connect communities,” said Burden. “Harrisonburg is a very diverse community. There are close to fifty different languages spoken in the elementary schools here. We want to reflect all of the different backgrounds in our community, through the arts- whether that involves enrichment through education or through beautifying the area.”

Over the past two decades, the Arts Council has continued to grow in order to support its mission. ACV’s initial programming included the Court Square Theater and the “Advancing the Arts” grant program but would soon grow to include the Smith House Galleries and a monthly cultural event, First Fridays.

The Court Square Theater

The first, and perhaps most well-known program that ACV runs is the Court Square Theater. Aside from the nearby Forbes Center for the Performing Arts at James Madison University, the Court Square is the go-to venue for concerts, plays and films in the area. The theater regularly partners with community members, such as JMU professors and students from kindergarten through graduate school.

Unfortunately, the theater’s 20 years of success were not enough to protect it from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of COVID, we had to close the Court Square for 18 months, and the Arts Council was forced to lay off the entire theater’s staff,” Burden said. “But we applied for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant from the Small Business Administration, and we got it. They were able to give us $110,000, which was incredible.” Because of the grant, ACV was able to reopen the theater in September 2021 and hire a new managing director, J.P. Gulla.

Gulla, who has an MFA in theater, has maintained the same quality of programming as his predecessor, but also has brought in his own, fresh ideas. This summer, the Court Square will be holding two brand-new theater camps for students. One of them, the “Classical Conservatory Camp,” will be geared toward students from seventh through 12th grade. The other, “Exploring Musical Theater Camp,” will be for first through sixth graders.

Registration is $249 per child before April 15, and $299 per child between April 16 and June 10. However, there are a limited number of scholarships available for low-income families. To be eligible for one of these scholarships, be sure to submit your application on or before April 15.

Advancing the Arts” Grants

The second of the two initial programs offered by the Arts Council of the Valley is its “Advancing the Arts” grant program.

“When the schools cut back on their budgets, they often cut the arts – so we try to fill in a little bit in that area,” Burden explained.

Since the program’s inception, ACV has given over $350,000 in grants. Each spring and fall, the Arts Council awards grants to artists and art educators in the community for a variety of different projects.

“For example, we gave some grant money last fall to an elementary school in Bridgewater that wanted to buy art books for their library, so we helped them to do that. One elementary school wanted to purchase drums to start a drum circle with the kids, which they loved,” Burden said.

When asked which of the projects was her favorite, Burden mentioned a grant given to the music teacher at Bluestone Elementary School for the children to write the school song.

“It was during COVID, so they had to do it via Zoom, and I don’t know how [the teacher] did it, but she sent me a video of the kids singing,” Burden said. “They’re all in their own homes, you know? But it’s like a patchwork of children, and they’re all singing together. I think it was called ‘Exploring and Learning Together,’ and they sang verses in both English and Spanish because it’s a dual-language school.”

While the grant funding cycle for spring 2022 has passed, applications for the fall cycle will open in July. To learn more about the program and to apply for a fall grant, visit their website here.

Smith House Galleries

Initially, the Arts Council had only two branches, the Court Square Theater and the “Advancing the Arts” program. But in 2005, its scope expanded when local news outlet, The Daily News-Record, gifted ACV with the historic Smith House, the fourth oldest home in the area.

“The Smith House was originally next to The Daily News-Record on Liberty Street, but they wanted to build a parking lot next door, so they gifted us this house- but if we wanted to save it from being demolished, we had to move it,” she said.

The Arts Council took on the ambitious effort of trucking the Smith House all the way from its original location to where it sits now, on Main Street in downtown Harrisonburg. Since then, Smith House has served as the administrative office space for ACV, but also serves a dual purpose as the Smith House Galleries, where each month, a new art exhibition takes place.

The most recent exhibition to take place was “artVISION,” the Rockingham County Public Schools Youth Art Month Show. In this exhibition, artwork from K-12 students was on display, just like the artwork of professional painters or photographers. Burden said that this event has become one of her all-time favorites.

“I love seeing these children’s faces when they come into this art gallery with their parents, and their artwork is on the wall, being presented to the public, to the community. They are just so proud– and they should be.”

An example of a piece from artVISION, entitled, “Checkerboard,” by Melissa Turner, a fourth-grade student at Fulks Run Elementary School.

Another favorite of hers is “Hilos en Común,” or “Common Threads,” in English.

“There is a group of Hispanic women in our community and they have been getting together to quilt for years,” Burden explained. “They’re quilting their individual stories – the stories of their lives. They’re all immigrants who’ve come to this country. We did an exhibition of their quilts. They wrote out their stories, we translated them, and we put them on the wall, next to their quilts. And that was just moving to see that displayed for the community. It really brought their stories to life.”

One of the quilts from “Hilos en Común,” entitled “Luz -A Special Dance/Una Danza Especial.”

The Smith House Galleries’ current exhibition includes the work of three photographers, Bob Adamek, Greg Versen, and Cara Walton. The exhibition is open, in person, until April 29, but you can view it anytime on their Facebook page.

First Fridays

In 2009, ACV and another local organization, the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR), worked together to establish two different programs: “Valley Fourth,” Harrisonburg’s annual Fourth of July celebration, and “First Fridays,” which serves to gather community members and businesses the first Friday evening of the month in support of Harrisonburg’s art and cultural district. By 2012, the organizations decided to end their partnership, and HDR took over Valley Fourth (which is now known as “Friendly City Fourth”), and the Arts Council took over First Fridays, which it still runs to this day.

While under the joint partnership of HDR and ACV, First Fridays was held only during the warmer months of the year, from April through October, but once the Arts Council took control of the program, it was expanded to every month of the year. There are now more than twenty downtown venues, such as retail shops, restaurants, galleries, and museums, that participate in the program, hosting art exhibition openings, local music performers, and various arts-related events.

To get a sneak peek of the events and venues, be sure to check out ACV’s interactive First Fridays map.

How to get involved

If attending one of the Arts Council’s many events is not enough to scratch your art philanthropy itch, there are still plenty of ways to get involved with the organization.

“Our board is made up entirely of volunteers, and then there are our ‘Cultivating the Arts’ sponsors, whose donations go to support all of ACV’s programs,” Burden mentioned. “But there are also the ushers at the theater and the docents at the gallery- we even have a volunteer who does the landscaping around the Smith House. If someone loves the arts, and they want to volunteer, we will find a place for them. I don’t know if I’ve ever turned down a volunteer.”

To learn more about the Arts Council of the Valley, you can visit their website here. You can also support them by following them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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