Long history of arts organizations in Smithfield

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on the arts in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. Next week is the focus will be on the community’s music venues.

 By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The Isle of Wight Arts League can trace its lineage back to a rambling old Victorian house.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The three story house, now the home of Home Sweet Home Care in downtown Smithfield, was where three women artists got together and created the Collage Studios and Gallery in 1991.

Fast forward 27 years and the Arts League not only has a permanent facility closer to the business center — the Arts Center @ 319 — it also has under its umbrella three other arts venues — the Smithfield Summer Concert Series, Smithfield Music and Sundays at Four.

Today, the Arts Center alone gets from 13,000 to 14,000 visitors a year, according to Director Sheila Gwaltney. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Another perk is the partnership between the Arts Center and Isle of Wight County Tourism, which shares the space for its Visitor Center.

“It’s like an old, happy marriage,” said Isle of Wight Tourism Director Judy Winslow of the space the two entities have shared since 2009. The Arts Center and Visitor Center moved into what was formerly Winn Hardware.

The shared space, which also includes a public restroom, allows tourism to become an attraction on its own, and the tourism traffic adds to the number of visitors to the Arts Center, Winslow said.

“It’s been a win-win situation,” she said.

Prior to 1991, there weren’t any visual arts venues in town, said Ann Hubbard, one of the founding members of the Collage and Isle of Wight Arts League.

There was an arts organization, the Brush and Palette Club, but Hubbard and co-founders, Carolyn Taylor and Sandra Killette, wanted a permanent venue for artists to work and show their art.

The women saw the solution in the then rather run down Victorian, which is located across from where Hubbard lives and runs her studio and gallery, Color Scapes.

Owners Lanny and Diane Hinson, who also live on Main Street, let the women rent the house and fix it up — and the roomy residence had lots of space to grow, Hubbard said.

The house was outfitted with galleries, a gift shop and classroom downstairs and artist’s studios upstairs. Hubbard credits the Hinsons for being generous with the house and their support in making it work in the early days.

When the Arts League decided to purchase the house, they were able to get enough donations for the down payment, Hubbard said, adding that other local artists, such as Ed Condra and Jack Dashiell were enthusiastic about the project.

At its heyday, the Collage had a rotating program every six weeks, as well as art classes and a summer camp for children.  

“It was a struggle, financially. But we always paid our bills on time,” said Hubbard.

In 2007, Gwaltney became director of the Collage and jokes that it’s her fault that the Arts League ended up moving to its present location.

Gwaltney became intrigued by the arts program in Harrisonburg that was built on partnerships and revitalizing old buildings into new uses. At the same time, the Antiques Emporium in Smithfield closed, as did Winn Hardware, and Winslow wanted to move tourism into a larger facility. Prior to the move, Tourism was located where Encore Pilates and Physical Therapy is now.

Nine months later the two organizations moved in, Gwaltney said, adding that the move allowed the center to stay open more hours, had better parking and was more handicap accessible.

“It really boosted our visitation,” she said.

The addition of the other venues, such as the Summer Concert Series, began before she became director. Sundays at Four was the last to join in 2010.

The other venues joined the Arts League to take advantage of its non-profit status, said Jim Abicht, who heads up Smithfield Music. Smithfield Music brings known musicians of many varieties to Smithfield, notably the annual Aiken and Friends Music Fest, and proceeds benefit music education in Isle of Wight County.  

It also allowed one entity to spread the word about all of its venues at the same time, he said.

The Arts Center still boasts a gift shop, resident artists, shows and arts classes.

Gwaltney said the plan is to add a juried art show, an outdoor art show and getting regional and state artists to display their work in an attempt to add new exhibits.

“We’re trying to up our game,” Gwaltney said.


Recollections of an earlier era 

One Smithfield resident remembers the arts in Smithfield decades before there was a non-profit Arts League or even the Smithfield Little Theatre.

Sundays at Four founder Mary Cole remembers that her mother, Catherine Yeoman Edwards was growing up with Ruth Haverty and Kitty and Louise Langhorne, the Chapmans and many other families that were very active in creating artistic outlets to Smithfield. That was around 1910 to the 1930s, Cole said.

There was an adult men’s choir and a music club for women through the 1950s, said Cole.

And a century ago, a barge presenting musicals and plays also traveled to Smithfield along the Pagan River, Cole said.

The James Adams Floating Theatre came to town before World War I and tied up at the dock at the foot of Main Street for a week, according to “Smithfield, A Pictorial History,” by Segar Cofer Dashiell.

Church music and school music shared a scene together until sometime in the late 60’s when there was a big push for the separation of the religious element from the schools, Cole recalls.

The Smithfield Little Theatre got its start in 1962 with a group that produced children’s theater with the Smithfield Recreation Association.

“Throughout our history, since the beginning of the 20th century, and even earlier, the arts brought people together. They are about community and are very therapeutic for all ages,” said Cole.  {/mprestriction}