2016 in Review: A look back at arts and culture

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

The past year was nothing if not unpredictable.

In 2016, Williamsburg welcomed a new music festival and a new museum. There were arts-related announcements both exciting and bittersweet. And in the midst of it all, a historic bell from our community resounded across the nation.

Here's a look back.

Hello, goodbye

Bruce Hornsby, the hometown musician with far-reaching reputation, invited several friends to Williamsburg for Funhouse Fest. The outdoor music festival, held in June, was a first for Virginia Arts Festival and largely a first for Williamsburg, too.

For three days, the musicians performed under a large tent on the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, and more than 6,000 people enjoyed the show. The event went so well, thefestival will return in 2017.

While Funhouse Fest saw a promising start, another Williamsburg festival came to a bittersweet end. The College of William and Mary announced in October a three-year suspension of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival after 38 years.

The 2016 festival experienced a 23 percent drop in attendance, compounding a steady decline that started in 2009, according to festival organizers.

There's hope yet. At its start, the Virginia Shakespeare Festival replaced a different summer theater program and, over the next three years, the college's Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance will explore ideas for a new program. Still, to what extent the new theater program will involve Shakespeare remains to be seen, festival director Christopher Owens said.

History brought to life

One of the most unexpected stories of the year started in the steeple of a small church on Scotland Street.

Williamsburg's First Baptist Church partnered with Colonial Williamsburg to restore the church's long-silent bell, launching the Let Freedom Ring Challenge on Feb. 1. The bell gave voice to a church with a powerful story to tell.

Formed in 1776, First Baptist Church is one of the oldest African-American congregations in the country, but the bell came symbolized much more than history. For the more than 4,000 people who rang the bell in February, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the bell rang for change.

In September, the bell rang before a national audience from the stage in front of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. President Barack Obama rang the bell to signal the museum's opening.

The bell continues to ring from the steeple on Scotland Street, a reminder its story has just begun.

In October, the Yorktown Victory Center transitioned to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown with the debut of a new introductory film and 22,000 square feet of galleries filled with artifacts and interactives.

The new space contains cutting-edge technology, including an experiential theater. But at its heart, the museum tells a fascinating story of "ordinary people in extraordinary times," and it does so in hopes of making the American Revolution relatable and relevant today.

Work continues on other facets of the museum, which is set to open officially in the spring.

Exciting announcements

It was a good year for growth in the realm of visual arts facilities.

In November, William and Mary announced the expansion of the Muscarelle Museum under the multimillion-dollar Martha Wren Briggs Center for the Visual Arts.

The center will house the expanded museum, a teaching center and state-of-the-art auditorium, among other features. Overall, the center seeks to further the arts, much like Martha Wren Briggs, a museum benefactor and 1955 alumnus of the college.

A short distance away from the Muscarelle, the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg announced in November a $40 million expansion of its own, set to break ground in April.

Colonial Williamsburg hopes, through a new entrance and 22 percent increase in gallery space, to make the museums more accessible, more visible—since 1985, visitors have entered the museums through the Public Hospital of 1773. The museums' new entrance will open onto Nassau Street.

Expanded arts facilities is one aspect of Williamsburg's continued growth in the arts, as evidenced by the formation this year of arts-focused organization such as CultureFix and the Triangle Arts and Culture League or the Williamsburg Symphonia's change in name to Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra.

There's no doubt 2017 will see that growth continue.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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