“This is not a little Victorian town,” said Ian MacRae, Founder and Director of the Virginia Street Arts Festival, of his hometown of Waynesboro. “This is a town that, although it is small, has buildings of an industrial size. It would work very well as a large canvas.” This pragmatic optimism is the driving motivation behind the festival and it’s this same mindset that has many within the community seeing potential where McRae expected skepticism.
MacRae himself isn’t the likeliest candidate to start something like a street art festival. A native to the area, he currently owns and operates E-N Computers, a computer services company that provides IT work for smaller businesses in Virginia and D.C. And while he doesn’t have an art history degree, he does have something else useful. Located on North Commerce Avenue (quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks), MacRae owns an office building that is admittedly old, unsightly, gray concrete block. The building would have stayed old, gray, and ugly for many years were it not for his adventurous idea.
His interest in street art came through his love for photography. Starting around 2000, MacRae would take regular visits over the mountain to Charlottesville’s Belmont Bridge. Known statewide as a safe haven for graffiti artists, on any given weekend you can catch muralists from all over spraying with impunity. MacRae would photograph the steady rotation of pieces, admiring the ways artists would weave the wall’s existing pieces into their fresh designs. Pieces created a week prior would be replaced by other artists passing through town. Then the idea hit him: why not invite these artists to Waynesboro to paint on a more stable canvas?
So in April of last year, that ugly, gray concrete got a makeover. MacRae explained, “[The artists] came up, did their thing. They painted about a 90-foot stretch of wall. It wasn’t really a festival per se, but it was so much fun.” The rest happened rather organically. “There was a Hispanic family next door that was having a birthday party for their daughter, they were blaring their music. Everybody was out working really hard, but it was visual and fun to watch. Everybody had a couple of beers wrapping it up. It just felt like a party. And I thought, ‘Wow, we should really do a festival!’”
So that’s exactly what they did. Come August, the Virginia Street Arts Festival at Waynesboro was born. The event was a surprise success with roughly 300 friends and neighbors coming out. In a community divided by race and wealth, MacRae was pleased to see all kinds of people coming together for an afternoon. One older attendee even pulled up his car and asked the artists to decorate the hood. Another building owner down the street opened up his wall to temporary chalk art for the kids.
Known for their overall conservatism, McRae was worried city officials would frown on the event. “I was really expecting more criticism from the power structure about it, but I found that to be a stereotype of mind and not the reality,” said MacRae gratefully, adding that everyone from civic leaders to business owners and even acquaintances in the grocery store were happy to see more artwork on that side of town. He admitted that things might be different if he were closer to, say, the Waynesboro Country Club, but it seems owning a building in an overlooked location has granted him a level of freedom. “Even if it wasn’t art that they would appreciate in their own house, they would want to have somebody doing it somewhere and this is the right place to do it.”
Now entering its second year, come August 27, the Virginia Street Arts Festival will feature much more than just painting. Food trucks, beer, and lawn games will entice attendees to stick around and music will keep ‘em dancing. The lineup features local hip-hop acts including Lady Taij, Wise, and Freak Aliaz. The chalk wall is back for kids and another generous local is donating his car for a new paint job. But perhaps the biggest draw this year are the two guest artists: Richmond star, Nils Westergard, with his gripping black-and-white portraits and Italian street artist Daniel Rossi with his colorful, playful style.
This grander vision is all part of the long term plan. Inspired by the Tom Tom Founders Festival in Charlottesville, MacRae and his team hope to draw new talent to Waynesboro by reimagining the city as a canvas. “Instead of just attracting people who are looking for raw storage or cheap space, maybe we can get some artists in and get some more creative solutions for these spaces.” The idea seems to be taking hold: in the past year, MacRae’s neighbors have had four murals painted on their own property.
The festival’s new mission to elevate the quality of life in Waynesboro through creativity and accessible culture. And their timing could not be better: as Americans become increasingly mobile and people flock to large metro areas, small communities like MacRae’s must consider what will encourage people to stay put (let alone move to town).
The task is daunting but doable. Marfa, Texas, for example, began as nothing more than a watering stop for the railroad, but through heavy investment in art from minimalist superstar Donald Judd, the town of 2,000 became a modern art mecca. This destination in the desert draws tens of thousands of visitors a year. It has served as the backdrop for multiple Hollywood productions including There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men, and was named the “Capital of Quirkiness” by 60 Minutes.
So in the story of an unlikely town with unlikely heroes, Waynesboro’s underdog status is proving to be one of its greatest assets. “I think if we can make some of these changes more visible in the community, people would start realizing this is a good place to start a creative business. It’s not just a factory over there. Actually, there is some interesting stuff going on.”
The Virginia Street Arts Festival will be held on Saturday, August 27 at 440 North Commerce Avenue in Waynesboro. Follow all the action at facebook.com/vasafestival.