City’s shabby treatment is unacceptable

The Surry Arts Council deserves better.

Throughout its nearly 50-year history, the arts council has been a champion for the arts and local school children, as well as a major driving force in the area economy.

Tens of thousands of local children and youth have been able to learn about and participate in the arts — drawing, painting, sculpting, music, singing, acting and more — because of the arts council’s work.

Executive Director Tanya Jones and her staff bring in artists for shows and exhibits in the community, often having those artists go into the local schools to work with area youth while they are in town. The agency offers free music lessons to any child who wants them; gives local youth the opportunity to become involved in live theater; and generally has been the source of exposure to the arts for area young people. Some of those youth have gone on to pursue a career in the arts as a result of their Surry Arts Council experience.

That barely scratches the surface of the impact the agency has had on Mount Airy and Surry County.

A major driving force behind the vibrancy of Main Street downtown — perhaps the single biggest force — has been the town’s association with “The Andy Griffith Show” and its claim to be the real-life Mayberry.

Virtually none of that happens without the Surry Arts Council. That agency was the one which built the annual Mayberry Days, starting as a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants one-day event to a nearly week-long festival built around high-level, professional entertainment, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the city that week.

The constant marketing effort behind Mayberry Days has helped make Mount Airy the year-long Mecca for all fans of “The Andy Griffith Show,” bringing the bulk of the city’s tourists to the area and giving fertile ground to tourism efforts of other agencies.

Along the way, the Surry Arts Council has refurbished the Historic Earle Theatre, making it a first-class show venue still in use decades after most downtown theater facilities around the nation became darkened, empty shells. The organization has built and maintains the Andy Griffith Museum and renovated The Andy Griffith Playhouse, both important cogs in the local arts and business community.

Mount Airy is home to two concert series — the Blue Ridge and Beyond as well as the Summer Concert Series (which actually lasts from spring through autumn). These series bring in singers and musical acts that would be the envy of most cities the size of Mount Airy — quite frankly, the envy of cities much larger than Mount Airy. People drive to Mount Airy from one to two hours away solely for some of these concerts. Both series are driven by the Surry Arts Council.

Just as important, the agency has done this, and much more, on a comparative shoestring budget.

So we find it surprising that Mount Airy commissioners, in trying to put a performance arts center of some sort in the Spencer’s project, hasn’t attempted to bring the Surry Arts Council into the fold as part of that effort. And we find it appalling the city has gone outside, bringing in some hired guns from the Barter Theatre who have laid out a plan for the city to spend millions to help renovate the Spencer’s facility, millions more in necessary infrastructure improvements, and to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the annual operating budget of their would-be Mount Airy location.

Then, after the plan is all gussied up and presented to the city as a shiny new project, the city tells Jones she needs to take the initiative to contact the Barter Theatre to see how they might be able to offer some of their expertise to her organization.

Given her experience with the Abingdon organization — a few years back it allegedly took some of Surry Arts Council’s money with a promise to come to Mount Airy for a show, then didn’t show up and has refused to refund the money — along with the fact Barter officials have resorted to insulting the city (including its consultant calling Mount Airy a one-horse town in need of the Barter’s expertise), we don’t blame Jones for not wanting to work with that agency.

We’re not against the idea of the Barter Theatre, or a similar organization, being part of the Spencer’s project. Barter has been in operation for 85 years, which attests to the fact that the folks who have run that agency clearly know what they are doing. And the theater most definitely has some regional name recognition as a tourist draw in its hometown.

What we do find distasteful is the financial details of this deal — city taxpayers on the hook for millions upon millions, while the Barter has no real financial stake and can walk away, penalty free, at any time — and the shabby way in which the Surry Arts Council has been treated.

We’d like to see the commissioners sit down with SAC officials to mend a few fences, offer a much-deserved apology. Who knows, the city might find the answers to its desire for a new performance arts center has been residing in Mount Airy all along.