Roanoke Arts and Culture Coordinator Susan Jennings is retiring at the end of July. She was the first person to take on the role, and indeed, it was built for her. Formerly the executive director of the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge, Susan made the move from Arts Commission member to City staff member upon the development of the public art plan, “Art for Everyone“.
While Susan Jennings will long be identified with the development of the City’s Percent for Art Fund and the growth of the public art program, her influence has spanned the arts. She deftly managed the city’s grant program supporting arts organizations. She guided the development of Roanoke’s first arts and cultural element of the comprehensive plan. She supported the public-private partnership that developed the Roanoke Cultural Endowment. And she led one of the nation’s first NEA Our Town grant-funded projects, Parks and Arts, in which visual and performing artists and arts organizations overtook neighborhood parks in community-driven mini-festivals.
When Susan made the move to City staff in 2006, I was appointed to fill her seat on the Roanoke Arts Commission (RAC). I remember being impressed with her organizational skills at my orientation meeting. Strong staff members make it easy for volunteers to commit time and energy. The city has been fortunate with Susan in her position, and I personally benefitted. Serving on the RAC was a great way to begin my civic life in a new home.The next 11 years were rewarding, and I stayed on the RAC every minute they let me, working with great people like Rupert Cutler, Sue Egbert, George Kegley, Patice Holland, Nathan Harper, Kathleen Lunsford, and Lucy Lee, among a host of others.
In 2010-11, Rupert and I co-chaired the development of the Arts and Cultural Plan, a big undertaking with broad and inclusive input. Best of all, it was coordinated by Susan and our community with minimal support from outside consultants. In a big blow soon after, we lost the Arts Council, a lead nonprofit partner. Now there was no one to convene the arts organizations. There was no one to get word out to the arts community when we needed to mobilize. No one to align voices for arts advocacy. Susan added duties to her role, picking up what pieces she could from the City’s side. She began convening the executive directors of the city’s arts organizations. Her biweekly newsletter now gets word out on arts happenings and artist calls.
Know that literary arts are part of this bag, too. Star City Reads gave out books at Parks and Arts. Poetry is inscribed in the Reading Garden sculpture at the Gainsboro Library. The Melrose Branch Library will feature more art that the community helped develop. Art by Bus includes Writer by Bus—look next fall for the fifth installment in that chapbook series. And just when I was coming off of my years on the Arts Commission, I knew I needed an avenue for further exploration and engagement. BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke was exactly that. When I presented the idea to the folks gathered around the table at an RAC meeting, the support I felt was real. They got it. Susan got it.
That fall we collaborated on the Finding Roanoke project, a community reading of What I Found in A Thousand Towns by musician and author Dar Williams. Susan and the RAC were a lead partner. Nearly 300 participants dug in over the course of the 10-week conversation on how a community can align the talents and skills of every willing resident. Hint: arts and culture play a big part.
It’s through the activities and places we love, through the projects that are the most meaningful to us, that we best engage. It’s where our best selves emerge. We’re learning this together as a community, every day, and Susan Jennings has helped us along that path. She was even game this spring to share some public art poetry with us for Poetry by Heart, a collaboration with the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts program at Carilion Clinic, for which she’s an advisor.
That’s the willing spirit with which she’s undertaken her career in the arts, and she’s combined it with dedication, wisdom, tenacity, organizational know-how, and a love for our community. She put it all to work. For that, we’re very, very grateful.
Thank you, Susan.
★ Watch the short video: Susan Jennings on public art in Roanoke.
★ How did Susan help you in advancing art, culture, and community in Roanoke? Let us know using the form below.
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING:
I first met Susan when I moved to Roanoke and went to the Arts Council to learn about opportunities for artists in this area. Many years and art projects later, I am very grateful to have benefited from Susan’s unwavering support for artists and the work we do to make this a better community for everyone. KATHERINE DEVINE
As Doug mentioned, Susan was one of the forces behind the Art by Bus program. I met her this way, as the third Writer on the Bus. Susan’s constant show of belief in me and my writing meant the world to me. I was as scared as I was excited to be selected the Writer on the Bus. Susan seemed so confident I would do well with the task; she even made ME believe maybe I was the right one for the job. Though my interactions with Susan were limited to the Writer on the Bus, I walked away from that time with a deep and abiding admiration for her. Susan’s confidence in me those several years ago still nudges me along in my creative efforts today. Thank you, Susan! 🙂 SHARI DRAGOVICH