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Virginia Arts Fest: 27 Years of Expanding Horizons & Economic Impact

It's more than meets the eye

When the Virginia Arts Festival debuted in 1997, the lineup included public radio favorite Garrison Keillor, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, jazz legends Ramsey Lewis and Billy Taylor, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Rob Cross, the festival's director, had been asked to launch a festival to encourage tourism to Norfolk during the shoulder season of the spring. Williamsburg had history. Virginia Beach had, well, the beach. And Norfolk, the thinking went, had an appealing arts foundation to act as the center of radiating spokes of performances across the region.

“It’s more diversified than I had hoped,” Cross told a newspaper at the time.

Little did he know how diverse and how expansive the festival would become.

The 2024 version spans performances that were, well, inconceivable two decades ago. There's 360 ALLSTARS, a whirling dervish of a modern circus that marries BMX, basketball, breakdancing, beatboxing, acrobatics, and drumming. There's the Harlem Dance Theatre performing to songs by Stevie Wonder and Radiohead. There's Mipso, the newgrass, folk, fusion group from Chapel Hill returning to downtown's Perry Pavilion after a sold-out show three years ago. There's Grammy winner Laufey, the hottest ticket in town, filling seats at Williamsburg Live. 

There's Grammy-winning country and Americana singer/songwriter Brandy Clark playing tunes from her latest album, produced and performed with Brandi Carlile. There's supergroup Bonny Light Horseman with Anais Mitchell, Eric Johnson, and Josh Kaufman making their debut in Norfolk. 

The appearances by Mitchell and Clark also bring a Tony Awards spotlight to the festival. Clark wrote "Shucked," the musical comedy which was nominated for nine awards and won for best actor. Mitchell wrote "Hadestown," which won a whopping eight awards and recently played in Chrysler Hall.

Over the years, the festival's offerings have become a wider panorama of arts offerings. Yes, there's chamber music, opera, the spectacle of the Virginia International Tattoo, a symphony collaboration with Chris Thile, and a musical theater collaboration with the Virginia Stage Company performing “Sweeney Todd.” 

Recently, the festival partnered with North Shore Point Concerts to book a series of artists in The Perry Pavilion downtown. The large tent, first erected in the wake of the pandemic, has been an intimate venue for artists including American Aquarium, Samantha Fish, Cowboy Junkies, Allison Russell, and Bela Fleck.

"The festival’s impact on the region’s cultural life has been broad and significant, and frequent festival partnerships with other arts organizations have created new opportunities to attract new audiences for all," notes Cross, the festival's Perry artistic director and executive director.

The festival's delights are spread across the region, but its foundation is in Norfolk. There, its growth has coincided with the rise of residents living downtown and the influx of restaurants throughout the area south of Brambleton Avenue. “The power of the arts has strengthened the region’s economy, attracting thousands of new residents to join new and growing businesses," Cross said.

While the festival has become more diverse over the years, it's also become an economic dynamo for the region. Last year, there were more than 77,000 attendees at 77 performances. More than 23,000 people visited from outside the region from 50 states and 11 countries. Those visitors occupied an estimated 17,600 room nights. 

"In its 27-year history, the Virginia Arts Festival has generated over $250 million for the state economy," Cross added. "The festival currently attracts tens of thousands of visitors each season. Many more can be enticed to visit our region by festival presentations that are unmatched elsewhere in the country.”

To see the full Virginia Arts Festival and get tickets visit https://www.vafest.org/tickets-and-events/.

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