Our Sustainable Future: Destination Sweet Briar

One of the main reasons for the 2015 decision to close Sweet Briar was its location—the College was “thirty minutes from the next Starbucks,” it was said, when college students preferred urban settings. While location has long been considered a barrier to Sweet Briar’s future, it need not be so. This plan seeks to position the College’s location as an asset, as a cultural and recreational destination.

Only 10 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trails, and 20 minutes from Lynchburg (and respectively one hour from Charlottesville and from Lexington), Sweet Briar is already part of a cluster that includes the nation’s second largest residential artist colony—the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) —and the last of Sam Snead-designed golf courses. Within the College, there is an extensive slate of hospitality services, agricultural enterprises, arts facilities, and athletic and outdoor facilities.

Requirements for vitalizing the cluster entail the infrastructural upgrades that are a sine qua non for the College in any event—Babcock, Pannell and dormitories—and the development of various outdoor and cultural programming, particularly in the summer. The benefits are myriad, including raising the College’s visibility through arts events, aiding in recruitment and retention of students, increasing auxiliary revenue and utilizing the campus in a period (the summer) when it might otherwise remain underutilized and somnolent. The arts events and activities will strengthen the College’s own arts programs, and foster positive town-gown relationships that will help boost the regional economy.

For most of its history, Sweet Briar College served one of the main purveyors of arts and cultural events for this region of Virginia. We now seek to re-double our efforts to have the College serve as a regional anchor for art and culture and put central Virginia “on the map” as a destination for arts and cultural programming—in the setting of unparalleled natural beauty. The result will be a creative, eclectic and diverse community, even somewhat akin to New York’s Chautauqua. It will bring together the Sweet Briar community, fellows from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA), local residents and tourists. It will appeal to arts aficionados, food and wine mavens, and outdoor enthusiasts.

Over the next five years, we plan to make Sweet Briar and the region a destination location for unique arts, cultural, and outdoor programming by doing the following:

(a) Remapping of Cultural Assets

The College and the region already possess many of the assets that will help establish the cultural corridor. They include: the Elston Inn & Wailes Conference Center, the Babcock Performing Arts Center, the Mills Chapel, the Cochran Library, the Pannell Gallery and the fine arts collection, the history museum, the academic and residential buildings of the National Register Historic District, the Fitness & Athletic Center, the turf field (once established), the Boathouse and the Harriet Howell Rogers Riding Center. There are also the College’s 20 miles of trails, Dairy Loop, its forest sanctuaries and lakes, the Quad, the Dell and bandstand, Monument Hill and the plantation community cemetery, the agricultural enterprises (greenhouse, apiary, vineyards, pollinator habitat) and its farm-to-table dining.

The College’s staff (inn, conference center, Bookshop) has expertise in managing auxiliary programs. The food service provider, Meriwether Godsey, has full-service catering ability and excels at creating farm-to-table meals. We will tap into faculty expertise as well, as many faculty in arts and humanities maintain contacts through their professional networks and may provide programming opportunities in their own right.

In the first years of the cultural corridor’s programming, most events would be held at Wailes, the library, the Dell and bandstand, the Quad, the campus trails and the geothermal field adjacent to the greenhouse. The bandstand and athletic field will require maintenance updates and vendor support (carpentry, electrical hookups, tenting, etc.) for use. Over time, activity locations would evolve as the College’s major arts facilities (Babcock and Pannell) are renovated.

(b) Renovating Babcock and Pannell

Babcock, like its neighbor Guion, was built in a modernist style and opened in the early 1960s. This once state-of-the-art facility will need significant renovations to support the technical requirements of contemporary performances and performing arts instruction. Necessary infrastructure work includes electrical updates, new HVAC, enhanced bathroom facilities and ADA accessibility, including elevators. Performance updates and upgrades for Murchison Lane Auditorium include computerized lighting and sound systems and new auditorium seating. Renovations should also include the conversion of the old studio theatre into a musical recital space and the creation of a new studio theatre/black box theatre. We have not yet engaged an architectural firm to assess the scope and costs of improvements to Babcock.

Pannell, a Georgian Revival brick structure designed by Cram, is part of the historic district. Built in 1906 as the College’s Refectory, its original interior was significantly altered in 1984 when it was renovated to become the College’s main art gallery and house the fine art collection and art library. Its infrastructure needs include updated HVAC and electrical systems—improvements vital to the safe and responsible storage and stewardship of the College’s collections—as well as improved ADA accessibility. Renovations will enable the Pannell Gallery to showcase the College’s own collection and host traveling exhibitions through creation of additional gallery space. The history museum may be relocated to Pannell and will require its own exhibit space. With support from a grant from an alumna, we have just hired an architectural firm to assess the scope and costs of the building’s improvements.

(c) Establishing Programming Partnerships

We have already begun to initiate conversations about this concept, with a focus on anchor local organizations as partners for its launch. VCCA has confirmed its involvement as a lead partner. Other initial confirmed partners include Amherst Second Stage, Amherst Glebe Arts Response and the Amherst County Government. Other local entities to approach include the town of Amherst, the Monacan Indian Nation, the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg, Wolfbane Productions, Endstation Theatre Company, local wineries and Meriwether Godsey. We will also reach out to Poplar Grove golf course and area historical sites, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

Future partners may include Chautauqua Institution (which has expressed interest), the city of Lynchburg, James River Association (for potential environmental education activities) and more. Other regional and national partners will be identified and solicited.

(d) Programming

Programming in Years 1-3 will center on smaller scale events of less than 100 attendees and will take place in summer months when the College is not in (in-person) session. Larger events may use the College’s acreage across Route 29 (the Amherst Country Fair has been held there in recent years) or the venues of partners, such as VCCA. By Year 4 and beyond, activities will be on a 12-month schedule and will be integrated with the College’s academic year events. By this time, renovations may have taken place in Pannell and Babcock that will allow their use; this will increase the scope of overall programming.

Programming will rely primarily on hired or touring talent. The types of programming currently envisioned for Years 1-3 include: summer camps; musical and theatrical performances in collaboration with national and/or local arts organizations, combined with farm-to-table dinners and/or wine tastings; weekend residential masterclass programs featuring well-known instructors on arts, humanities and lifestyle topics; guided campus and regional history tours; guided campus trail hikes; a running or mountain bike race; and environmental art installations using materials from the land. The frequency of the events will evolve depending on demand and capacity. In Year 4 and beyond, programming will expand to include traveling exhibitions at Pannell and large-scale performances at Babcock.

The success of this ambitious project requires coordination by a person with expertise in arts and culture programming and managing large-scale projects. We are in the process of recruiting the new director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts to help launch and sustain operations of the cultural corridor.