Madison House of The Arts Uplifts the Community Through Art and Outreach
The energy in the room was palpable.
The sounds of voices and live music intermingled jubilantly as the tantalizing smell of pizza wafted through the air.
At the center of the scene was a young man playing his bass, his entire being radiating joy. It was his 18th birthday, and he was celebrating it at Madison House of the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to uplifting the Lynchburg community through art.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an 18-year-old that happy before,” recalls Christopher Townsend, Director of Madison House of the Arts. “His birthday will be memorable because Madison House gave him what he needed at that time. It was a sober environment, he was surrounded by most of his close friends, and they were just enjoying pizza, cake, music, and conversation.”
This and other experiences of joy, belonging, healing, and hope are everyday occurrences at Madison House, which has evolved a great deal since it opened about five years ago.
Madison House began as a small arthouse gallery in the basement of Carrie Robinson’s home on Madison Street. “Carrie started it to help local artists get their work out in the community and keep the money they make from their art and to allow people—especially those living in lower-income housing—to get together to see that art,” Townsend says.
When Robinson moved, Townsend wanted to continue to run the gallery while also adding a community outreach component. His outreach ideas centered around helping people fulfill basic human needs and providing a safe space for people to express themselves.
“I know an investor named Rachel Burns,” he says. “She was very interested in the arthouse and in the mission that I had for it, which was basically to use art as a stepping stone to community outreach: feeding people, clothing people, giving individuals a bigger voice, and allowing people to start programs within the arthouse. I also wanted to create a safe, sober environment for individuals who are on their recovery journeys.”
On July 30, 2021, Madison House officially became a nonprofit. The Board of Directors was selected thoughtfully to ensure that the nonprofit can succeed in its missions; to that end, two board members work in the mental health field.
“When forming a board, I wanted to make sure that we were using art in the right way,” Townsend notes. “We try to create a therapeutic environment where we can use encouragement and sincere love to breathe life into people.
It comes down to actually listening and caring about people’s dreams and about where they want to go in their lives.”
In addition to listening and encouraging self-expression, Madison House first and foremost helps people take care of their basic needs.
Two of the most pressing issues that Madison House tackles are food insecurity and clothing needs, and it does so through a community table in front of the house.
The community table offers free canned and boxed foods, beverages, hygiene products, and clothing items to anyone who needs them. Cash and item donations from the community help keep this table—and a recently opened pantry inside the house—stocked. Everyone at Madison House is a volunteer, and all donations go toward services and programs.
“We now have a pantry inside called Leah’s Place,” says Townsend. “It allows individuals to come inside, have coffee, and get food essentials and clothing items.”
Madison House also offers use of bathroom and shower facilities, counseling, and connection to shelter resources for homeless individuals.
When it comes to art, Madison House offers a myriad of different programs that allow participants to express themselves creatively and observe others doing the same.
Currently, open jam and art sessions take place Monday, Thursday, and Sunday nights from 6:00 to 10:15 p.m., and the Blacklight Poetry Lounge occurs Saturday nights from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.
“The poetry lounge allows individuals to come in and do spoken-word poetry,” Townsend notes. “We’ll be streaming outside spoken-word artists in and [streaming]in-house artists out. One of our board members, Angelina Dawn, is a spoken-word artist who draws a large crowd. The spoken-word community has a powerful voice, especially in the African American community. A program like this offers a really good platform for people to speak, and the only rule we have about speaking is that we don’t allow hate speech.”
Townsend is particularly excited about a program planned for the spring that will allow young people to enjoy a comprehensive music-making experience, the “in Tune” music program.
“We’re partnering with the UP Foundation and a business called The Vinyl Foundry,” he says. “The program is going to be a donor-based program, where individuals can donate on a monthly basis. We’re hoping to take on at least ten participants under the age of 21 at a time. Participants will get to learn about the basics of music, write music, and record music.”
In an effort to further convey the importance of giving back to the community, Madison House will require participants to perform community service.
“In order to get their recording time at the music foundry, participants have to do community service, and the funds from the donations will be dispersed from us to The Vinyl Foundry to record their music,” adds Townsend. “I spent the majority of my professional career before COVID on the road with artists and musicians, and I try to let young people know that being an artist or a musician is a form of serving. You are serving a basic human need by connecting.”
After all, meaningful connection is the cornerstone of Madison House’s mission.
“We pride ourselves in going out into the community and asking people what they need,” Townsend notes. “I think that all of our artists really try to connect with the community and use their art to try to relate to and raise awareness about those needs. A lot of our youth especially have something to say about what’s going on around them. I feel like the house has become a place for youth to learn more about who they are.”
The fact that Madison House is just that—a house—contributes to its ability to make people feel comfortable and safe.
“There’s something about this home that’s really inviting,” says Townsend. “A house is made up of different rooms with different personalities, and when people step in here, they’re immediately drawn to different parts of the house. It doesn’t matter if we all get along; it just matters that we’re all a part of the home. We all bring something to the table.”
In the future, Townsend hopes that Madison House will “grow responsibly” and that he and other volunteers can continue to help people in the same way that a certain musician helped him years ago.
“I don’t think I ever would have been able to get here without two things: God and the experience of touring with the musician Matisyahu, who gave me a chance when I needed it the most,” he says. “Because an artist breathed life into an artist, it gave me hope for my future. You’ve got to breathe life into people and let them know that they’re going to be OK.”
Photos by ROGER PRICE