Busking in Blacksburg is back
BLACKSBURG — The latest step in the town’s drive for arts recognition is to prune the red tape — and roll out something of a red carpet for its local musicians and other artists.
It seems a small step, but letting buskers set out their cases and play for tips is a marked shift for the town.
Chris “Moon” Saunders, a veteran of the New River Valley’s theater and music scenes, recalled last week that in the 1980s, he was chased off the streets by police while trying to busk. A decade ago, musicians tried to sneak in short guerrilla concerts in an alley off Draper Road, hoping to set up, play, and get away before there was any official notice.
More recently, the town opened up a few sidewalk spaces to artists, but required a permit to perform. Some of the spaces were hopelessly off out of the way, like an alley beside the Kent Square parking deck, said Saunders, who took his guitar there to try his luck.
“We really learned our lesson,” town spokeswoman Heather Browning said last week, chuckling. “Artists need to be able to creatively express themselves without coming in and applying for a permit.”
Two weeks ago, Town Council voted to lift restrictions and let musicians or painters or jugglers or other performers set up anywhere in town, as long as they don’t block traffic or interfere with business. It was a step that was encouraged by Saunders and other musicians.
Mayor Ron Rordam said officials also had an eye on the popularity of the weekly old-time music jams that have gathered steam at the Blacksburg Farmers Market this year.
“That shows there is support there” for busking-style performances, Rordam said.
“We wanted to make it a little easier, … make it more spontaneous,” he said.
During the past decade, Blacksburg officials have increasingly come to see arts as a magnet for economic development and tourism, Rordam and Browning said. Virginia Tech’s development of its Center for the Arts, scheduled to open next year at the corner of North Main Street and the Alumni Mall, spurred consideration of “the assets we had already,” Browning said.
The Blacksburg Partnership, a nonprofit economic development agency that links town, Tech and business people, formed a Collaborative for the Arts with the goal of “helping make Blacksburg a year-round destination for the arts,” said Diane Akers, president of the Blacksburg Partnership.
The Collaborative held an artists’ summit in August and came up with seven goals for spreading recognition of the region’s arts. One was creation of a website where performers, venues and others can list upcoming events.
“It’s sort of the calendar that’s been missing in Blacksburg for a long time,” Browning said.
Other goals were to assemble directories of artists and of venues and galleries.
More signs of Blacksburg’s enthusiasm for the arts are the cooperation between the town and the 16 Blocks arts magazine that is spreading murals across downtown walls and the town’s push for inclusion on the state’s Crooked Road music trail, Browning said.
The approaching opening of Tech’s Center for the Arts, the re-making of College Avenue to include wider sidewalks and a permanent stage, and the renovation of the town’s Alexander Black House as a museum and space for events will surely prompt more activity, she said.
Saunders said he’s just happy to have more places to perform.
Playing and singing two to three times a week during the summer, Saunders said he plans to switch to poetry and Shakespearean monologues as it gets too cold to handle a guitar.
Involved with theater groups for years, Saunders said he loves the immediacy of sidewalk busking.
“Art can be exclusive to people with money,” Saunders said. But on the sidewalk, “You’re not up on a stage. You’re right out there with the people,” he said.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1669