The Bower Center’s mission continues to evolve, with new offerings in 2021
The year 2021 marks 15 years since the Bower Center for the Arts first opened its doors. What initially began as the Bedford Academy for the Arts with a broad mission of “promoting the cultural arts” has evolved—big time.
Over the years, the center has become an access point for the arts in Central Virginia and a downtown anchor for the Town of Bedford. And even though the center hosts national juried exhibitions that attract artists from across the nation, it continues to honor its original mission of providing cultural arts to the community with an enhanced focus on making the arts accessible to all, which serves as the heartbeat for this nonprofit.
Celebrating Creativity & Self-Expression
On any given day, you might find executive director Susan Martin greeting a host of tiny toddler ballerinas skipping through the Bower Center’s doors, or you might find her collaborating with professional artists and educators on how to best deliver a watercolor workshop over a digital platform. She might be answering questions on upcoming pottery classes or overseeing the next community art installation in the front window of the center.
Gallery admission is always free of charge—that’s just one way the Bower Center fulfills its mission of eliminating barriers and improving accessibility to the arts. “Providing high-quality art classes at an affordable price tops the list,” Martin explains, noting that the center plans to expand its current scholarship program to include adults.
“We want to be available to different audiences and more individuals in the community in different ways,” she adds, which includes expanding existing partnerships and entering collaborations with Bedford Domestic Violence Services and the Department of Social Services.
Equal parts community art center, renowned gallery, and performance venue, the Bower Center serves as a gathering place for anyone interested in any kind of art. From community art events to “2nd Friday” programs and paint nights, “we want this to be a place for community connections, for building relationships, growing your creativity,” Martin explains. “That’s the direction we’re going in—we want to celebrate creativity in all its shapes and forms.”
Serving the Community
The center serves up offerings from a diverse menu of creative programs and opportunities designed to inspire, encourage, and promote artistic expression in a variety of forms. Some classes take place year-round, and others are Saturday morning one-time workshops; many are now available online. Whether someone is interested in photography, fiber arts, creative writing, jewelry-making, or learning to play the bass guitar, the options are varied and nearly endless. Essentially, if someone is interested in learning more about the visual, literary, or performance arts, they will find a class or workshop to meet their needs at the Bower Center—and if they can’t, they can make a request.
In fact, the center invites those requests as it relies on community feedback to curate appealing offerings and to meet community needs. It was because of such input that classes in fiber arts and pottery appeared on the class schedule along with more single-session workshops and an extensive youth art program, including a new program for homeschool students.
While the center was providing after-school enrichment classes to students through its partnership with Bedford County Public Schools, it also recognized that Bedford County is home to one of the largest populations of homeschool families in the state. With that in mind, the Bower Center created Homeschool Mondays in order to better serve the homeschooling community. This program, made possible by grants from the Pacific Life Foundation, the Nora Roberts Foundation, and the Rea Charitable Trust, invites homeschoolers to the center every Monday for age-appropriate art classes and workshops.
Expanding Services in Times of Uncertainty
Martin shares that the recent pandemic compelled the center to consider ways to improve services and reach more people, including those unable to take part in multi-week, live classes.
“It made us start looking at how we better serve our community instead of just doing what we always did,” she says.
With that in mind, the Bower Center pivoted, putting all of their exhibits online along with the family art scavenger hunts to encourage families to appreciate and enjoy art together. Even paint nights went virtual, with Bower supplying at-home art kits. Even in the midst of pandemic-related challenges, the center sought out ways to make the arts fun, interesting, available, and safe.
Adding virtual components and live-streamed classes helped the Bower Center continue providing services during an otherwise uncertain time, and these changes have helped guide future plans. “Even though life won’t always be the way it’s been during the pandemic, we want to continue growing and offering things in different ways,” Martin explains.
Wellness, Creativity, & the Healing Arts
Not only will the Bower Center welcome new faces onto its board in 2021, but it will also support the expansion of a dream that has been long-discussed ever since it opened its doors 15 years ago. This will be the year the center brings expressive arts therapy and the healing arts into focus. The healing arts, which consist of music, movement, poetry, and visual art, are frequently used to promote wellness, deal with stress, and provide avenues for meaningful self-expression.
The center has offered wellness classes periodically over the years, and yoga and Tai Chi have been calendar mainstays. The demand for more “Music and Mindfulness” workshops continues to grow along with requests for more workshops in the healing arts. The center will launch regular workshops and offerings in the healing arts in 2021. Plans also include partnering with area funeral homes to provide art therapy sessions with local grief support groups.
“We know that art is healing and we want to help each other connect, communicate, and share through the arts,” Martin explains. “Through this pandemic, we know people have to have opportunity to express themselves, and we want to help them in any way we can to provide a safe and healthy environment to engage in the arts.”