Taubman unveiled

More than 10,000 visitors mused over modern and basked in baroque at Roanoke's newest star, the Taubman Museum, on Saturday.
November 9, 2008

The Taubman Museum of Art opened to the public Saturday with a day of music, ballet, inspiring words by Gov. Tim Kaine and other dignitaries and at least 10,000 visitors.

A day Roanoke had anticipated for months, if not years, came off with few major problems, while the $66 million building by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout garnered mostly rave reviews.

"I think every city needs a kind of a weird-looking building," opined one visitor, Charles Smith. The Virginia Tech engineering student was one of several people gazing at the ultra-modern, zinc-and-stainless steel museum and taking pictures from the Williamson Road Bridge about 11 a.m.

"You need something to shake things up a little bit," he said. "I'm really proud that Roanoke has such vision."

Admission throughout the first day was free, though the museum issued tickets with assigned times to keep the crowd numbers under control.

The result was a flood of visitors that museum officials said could top 14,000 by day's end. The museum was open until 11 p.m. It will be open again from noon to 5 p.m. today, but regular admission rates apply.

The day kicked off with all the speeches anyone could want, under a tent set up on Market Street for the occasion. The museum's board president, John Williamson, praised the $15 million donation from the museum's namesakes, Nicholas and Jenny Taubman. Nicholas Taubman is the U.S. ambassador to Romania. Jenny Taubman, the fundraising chairwoman, praised the "tireless" museum staffers "who sometimes slept in their desk chairs" getting the museum ready.

"We said we were going to do it and we did it. You did it," enthused Georganne Bingham, the museum's executive director, while state Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, said: "What this says about Roanoke is that change is good. Just take that leap of faith."

"The world can always use a little more beauty," Kaine said. "And that's what this day is about."

And the crowds came

Meanwhile, the line was forming for the first wave of museum visitors, set to enter at 11 a.m. First in line were Donna and John Allgauer, who had arisen at 6:30 a.m. and driven from Hardy in Bedford County.

"I didn't want to miss the opening. It's the event -- and I am an art lover, too," Donna Allgauer said.

They were looking forward to a leisurely visit. "We'll take our time," John Allgauer said.

Visitors were allowed in every half hour throughout the day, roughly 400 at a time. Museum officials said 3,000 people had entered as of 2 p.m., and by midafternoon all the entry tickets were taken through early evening.

The crowd was mixed with a fair percentage of people from nearby Virginia cities such as Bedford, Lexington and Martinsville.

The museum fielded a small army of volunteers in burnt-orange T-shirts to help with ticketing and crowd control and answer questions on opening day.

But the best question may have come the day before, as volunteer Susan Shortridge worked the museum's hospitality table at Hotel Roanoke.

Someone asked Shortridge if the opening of the art museum was the biggest thing happening in Roanoke this weekend, she recalled.

D'oh!

"I said, 'This is the biggest thing that's happened in Roanoke in 40 years.' "

Stilt birds and handbags

The city closed Norfolk and Salem avenues and part of Market Street for the museum opening, and downtown had a festival feel as bands played under the tent and lines of museumgoers waited in the street. The crisp, sunny fall weather made waiting outside nearly as much fun as getting in. In addition to the music, there was a portrait painter, a balloon sculpting clown and the dazzling Cirikli Stilt Birds -- bird and butterfly puppets up to 12 feet tall, controlled by performers on stilts. The Stilt Birds preened and posed for pictures off and on throughout the day.

Inside, visitors ambled through galleries of contemporary landscape photography, Italian baroque art, tattoo design and the museum's own holdings of American art.

Lillian Isbell gazed at John Singer Sargent's 1888 portrait of Englishwoman Norah Gribble early Saturday afternoon, and decided she liked it best of all.

"There's just something," explained Isbell, 9. "I love the way he captures her." Lillian looked pleased to learn the museum's "Norah's Cafe" was named for the painting.

Outside the little gallery that displays the museum's collection of Judith Leiber handbags, there was a continual line that stretched at times all the way across the hall.

Why?

"Women like handbags," said Leigh Anne Mitchell of Roanoke, who was about midway through the line at mid-afternoon. On her way out of the gallery a few moments later, Mitchell called the bejeweled handbags "exquisitely beautiful. And every woman needs one."

Art meets the real world

There were some opening week glitches. The lifelike stuffed figurines by artist Mark Jenkins proved a little too realistic for some Friday evening, as a girl appeared to be seated precariously on the edge of the museum balcony overlooking Williamson Road. The museum had alerted the fire and police departments ahead of time, but still, "the 911 board lit up," museum director of operations James Beckner said. They moved the figure closer to the museum building. By late afternoon on Saturday, the girl was back on the balcony edge, but facing inward, in a more stable-looking position.

One problem was painfully apparent when an elderly woman in a wheelchair found herself stymied by a curb at the front of the line to enter the museum. No one seemed to know what to do for many seconds. Finally she was lifted out of her wheelchair while the chair itself was hoisted over the curb.

Museum officials said they were guiding people in wheelchairs to a handicapped-accessible entrance on Norfolk Avenue, but they had accidentally missed the woman.

A couple who came to see a performance by the Southwest Virginia Ballet in the museum auditorium left disappointed because they couldn't get museum entry tickets for the appropriate time. Other people, some with small children in tow, were chagrined to find the first available entry times were hours away.

"We just thought we were going to get in," explained Michelle Miller of Christiansburg, holding her 3-year-old son, Christian, in her arms about noon. The museum offered them entry tickets for 4:30 p.m.

By the afternoon, however, the system seemed to be working well, with the result that once inside, people had space and time to look. The shuttle bus system from the Roanoke Civic Center parking lot was even more efficient than advertised. Buses were supposed to run every half hour, but ran every five to 10 minutes on Saturday morning instead.

"It's going very smoothly," said Beckner about 2:30 p.m. "Everybody's cooperating. Everybody seems to enjoy being here."

And indeed, people left happy.

"The paintings were beautiful," said Roanoke's Jill Cain on her way out.

"It was unbelievable," said Betty Waldron of Salem.

"What's not to like?" asked Julie Severance of Roanoke. She admitted she found the building "sort of a little weird outside.

"It's gorgeous inside."

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