The celebration that many feared might never happen DID happen, on Saturday, June 18! And what a celebration it was!! The Academy Historic Theatre Restoration Campaign was complete at 16.75 million dollars, exceeding the goal set in 2012 of 16.6 million! Over 1,000 donors at all levels were invited to gather at the Warehouse Theatre for a spectacular evening to enjoy the fabulous Diamond Hill Baptist Church choir, to dance to some of the best bands in the region – Tony Camm, Chamomile and Whisky and Jeff Carl, to hear heartfelt expressions of gratitude for their faithful and generous support, and just to join together to share the joy of success as a community of people who believed so deeply, despite the frustrations and the ups and downs of 25 years of effort, that this was a goal worth reaching. I’ve been around this project since 2003, and believe me, the joy and relief, even disbelief, that this day had come was real. And though all knew there was much work yet to be done, morale and hope had been lifted.
Perhaps Poet Nick George of The Listening said it best when he delivered his ode to the Academy and its supporters in deep rich tones:
“Thank you for being
The Academy of Believers.
This is for you who know that
This gateway called art exists . . .
This is for you who believe that
What we do
Has the potential to change
More than we could have ever imagined
So thank you for that . . .
There are hearts who need the arts
And only by willing community members like yourselves is it possible.”
Campaign Chair George Dawson echoed those same sentiments, if a little less poetically! Asked why he thinks we succeeded this time when so many hardworking and dedicated folks had not been able to reach the finish line in years past, he attributed it to persistence. Building on all the efforts before them, his crackerjack team believed it was possible, and they slowly but surely convinced others to believe. Each layer of the campaign that was completed built momentum toward the next one – from major leadership gifts to corporate gifts to the city’s crucial 2.3 million dollar contribution and the EDA’s $600,000 to Becky Hawkins’ $350,000 challenge gift which precipitated an influx of first time and small givers – all helped to create the belief that this unique and special theatre, so long vacant and in disrepair, was destined at long last to be restored to its former glory! The progress of downtown revitalization supported by City Manager Kim Payne and City Council added considerably to the momentum George feels, and so the lesson for the city he says is that ANYTHING is possible when we work together.
There is no question that a strong and committed Board of Directors, led by Sackett Wood, played a significant role in making all this happen. Sackett and others have picked up the mantle of those who came before them and laid the groundwork for success, for which he is grateful. “Twenty-five years ago, this community, against all odds, made the decision to preserve and restore a piece of its history. It’s a sign of a community’s strength to take on the big challenges and have the will and perseverance to overcome the enormous obstacles to see something like this through. There are many chapters of humility, generosity and selflessness in this story – not one but many – that when all put together show the face of Lynchburg and I am just proud to be a small part of the journey.”
And there have been other believers along the way, a myriad of them, but one special one jumps to mind. Director of Operations Dorie Smiley came on board with the Academy of Music Theatre restoration effort in 1997, stayed on through the merger with the Fine Arts Center in 2003, weathered the starts and stops of multiple campaigns buffeted by 9/11 and the stock market crash, and is now, she admits, “able for the first time to be really excited!” Dorie was bitten by a passion for the Academy and just couldn’t let go.
So many have given generously of their time and resources over the years, each for their own reasons. Cary Roberts wanted to invest in something that would serve this community forever and she believes the arts transcend other experiences to enrich lives. Marge Dillard, once a teacher, remembers seeing young children in another city bused to a live theatre performance emerging with eyes wide with wonder, and she wanted that for Lynchburg. Elaine Passman feels strongly that the Academy must be the center of arts and culture for Lynchburg and the entire region, and she is overjoyed that her small children will never remember a time when there wasn’t an historic theatre. She is also convinced that from a business standpoint, the economic opportunity it offers the city to bring people here and keep them is immense. Mary Dalton and her family wanted to help bring Lynchburg history back to life.
Without doubt, the recent hiring of a new, young, energetic and visionary Director at the Academy in the person of Geoff Kershner was a huge incentive for people to support the capital campaign, for he inspired confidence in the future. And what of the future, of the years after the construction work is done and the Academy reopens its doors in the fall of 2018? Geoff has given that much thought and planning. First and foremost, he wants to create a culture in which the community takes ownership of the organization and helps to move it forward. With diversified programming – a mix of national touring performances, Academy produced shows, collaborations with other arts organizations, rentals, business meetings and regional conferences – he hopes to make the Academy the crossroads of the city, where a wide constituency converges. Finding the balance that’s right for Lynchburg will be the challenge and it will no doubt need to be adjusted and changed many times. More than anything, Geoff feels strongly that community outreach must be an integral part of the strategy for success — contributing to the public good so that the arts are more than just a diversion but are a vital and valuable entity that makes this a better place to live. Only then, he believes, will the Academy garner the ongoing financial support – in an endowment and annual giving — that it will need to exist and thrive.
Suffice it to say that it appears another generation will not pass in Lynchburg without a precious piece of our history opening its doors wide to anyone and everyone, before the Academy of Music Theatre takes its rightful place at the center of an arts complex that is unique in the state.
Nick George paid tribute to all those who celebrated this accomplishment on the 18th, and to those who couldn’t be there —
– Libby Fitzgerald
Learn more about the Historic Academy Theatre academycenter.org/the-restoration-of-the-1905
Learn more about the Historic Academy Theatre construction progress academycenter.org/under-construction