Carnegie Hall: The Beating Heart of WV’s Most Vibrant Arts CommunityAugust 8, 2015
You’ve probably heard of the famous Carnegie Hall in New York. But did you know one of these incredible historic venues is tucked right into the Southern West Virginia mountains?
Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg is one of only 4 continuously operating Carnegie Halls in the world. It’s a piece of history, for sure. But more importantly, it’s a piece of the community. The locals have championed the hall through renovations and support, and it in turn has helped foster a vibrant creative scene that extends well beyond its walls.
The prestige of the Carnegie title is passed down from the famed philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who spent the last few years of his life reinvesting 90% of his steel magnate fortune back into charity. He was one of the most famous industrialists in his time, but he also believed his wealth came with a responsibility, so he poured it into libraries, world peace, arts, medicine, education and more worldwide. The seeds of his funding sprouted a legacy that still has a strong influence around the world today.
But the hall stands strong on its own merit, too. It’s been honored nationally for its incredibly diverse programming.
An Arts-Based Community
The stately Greek Revival building stands along Church Street in downtown Lewisburg. The town, partly for its artistic charm, was named “America’s Coolest Small Town” by Budget Travel in 2011. It’s also one of only a few certified arts town in the state.
Just in Lewisburg’s downtown area, you can find:
- The award-winning acting troupe at the The Greenbrier Valley Theatre
- The Lewis Theatre, which screens films in addition to regular live performances
- Jazz organization Casasanta
- The Trillium Performing Arts Collective, promoting original artistic creation
- Art galleries like Washington Street Gallery, Cooper Gallery and Harmony Ridge Gallery
- Events like the annual First Fridays After Five gallery crawl
- Regular concerts in shops and restaurants like The Wild Bean cafe
- Several Mountain Music Trail stops
Make no mistake: all that entertainment is packed in tightly. Lewisburg is a small spot, with a population of fewer than 4,000. But these few townsfolk are dedicated to keeping each of these arts organizations alive.
In some ways, Carnegie Hall is the centerpiece of this thriving arts scene, both in its physical stature and symbolically.
The Vast Reach & Influence of Carnegie Hall
Some of the most renowned artists have graced the Carnegie Hall stage— everything from world-lauded groups like platinum-selling Grammy winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo chorus or the iconic Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to popular music greats like chart-smashing country/bluegrass star Kathy Mattea or blues visionary Taj Mahal.
But the influence extends beyond performance. Carnegie Hall is an all-encompassing art emporium, where every variety of creativity can find a safe haven.
The artistic pursuits touch every style and type:
- Film- The hall hosts fine and foreign films at the local Lewis Theater.
- Art- 3 public galleries feature rotating exhibits. The Traveling art exhibits take hands-on artistic learning on-the-go.
- Music- In addition to world-class performances, the stages at Carnegie also give budding regional musicians a first chance to shine.
- Taste- The major fundraiser for the hall is Taste of Our Towns, which gives Lewisburg area chefs a chance to showcase their finest creations.
- Heritage- Appalachia’s unique culture finds an honorary place inside Carnegie with events like monthly square dances to keep the old folk traditions alive. But international folk traditions also grace the stage.
- Poetry and Prose- Brown Bag Tuesday shows feature a variety of works for the lunchtime crowds, including author discussions and poetry readings.
- Science- 2 portable planetariums share astronomy with local students.
This hub of cultural activity isn’t just some untouchable pinnacle. The hall spreads the creative flair as far as possible.
Free concerts, receptions and performances are a mainstay of Carnegie, and the gallery displays cost no admission. Pay-what-you-can performances open some of the finest of the fine arts to anyone, regardless of budget. In the summer, the free Ivy Terrace Concert Series serves as a town gathering.
Even with the budget-friendly options, the hall gives the town a direct economic benefit. The quality programming brings visitors from across the country. Tourism to the hall gives other local businesses an economic boost, too— which can support even more arts programming.
Culture and economy are woven together into of the fabric of Lewisburg. But Carnegie Hall knits it more tightly together.
Inspiring a New Generation of Artisans
One of the most important functions of the hall is to keep its world-class artistry alive in its own neighborhood.
Education has always been a key mission at Carnegie Hall, which was originally an institute. The music hall for the original facility was elaborate, with a pipe organ, harps, 30 pianos and 14 separate practice rooms, in addition to the 1,000-seat auditorium.
“We know there is great value in the arts for young people. But we also think it’s important for them to have a place where that is fostered and valued."
Education has endured as a part of the hall’s legacy. Today, its programs reach thousands of students around the state. It fosters young musicians and artists in the area. It can be as simple as sparking their intrigue by introducing them to their first major musical. Or, it could be an amazing opportunity to learn from some of the country’s most prominent players.
One program partnership with New York’s Carnegie Hall gives 4th graders a truly unique opportunity. Each young player gets a comprehensive musical education on a recorder, which culminates in a chance to join in on a live interactive show with a real professional orchestra.
“We want the kids to not only see the orchestra, but play along,” Heather said. “We know there is great value in the arts for young people. But we also think it’s important for them to have a place where that is fostered and valued.”
Heather knows firsthand what a difference the arts can make.
“Music for me was always a very important part of my childhood,” she said. “It was probably my strongest connection. It was what fulfilled me.”
She went to school on a vocal scholarship, and now it’s part of her mission at the hall to spread that artistic passion and curiosity to others.
It’s not just youth the hall seeks to inspire. Outreach programs sharpen inmates’ skills in creative writing, classes mold community members of all ages, and meeting spaces provide other local arts organizations space to practice.
Infusing the community with art appreciation only serves to reinforce its roots— just adding to the cycle of arts that keeps Lewisburg churning, from Carnegie Hall outward.