DANBURY — Eddy McGee has long been among the folks in Stokes County who believe the county’s beauty and cultural heritage are its finest selling points, with untapped economic potential.
The beauty — the mountains, rock faces and waterfalls that make up Hanging Rock State Park — came naturally, annually bringing about 670,000 people to a county with 46,000 residents.
Finding a way to showcase the county’s artists and craftsmen has taken a bit more work, requiring lots of talking and fundraising, the majority of which fell on the shoulders of the indefatigable McGee, who has been executive director of the Stokes County Arts Council since 2004.
The result is The Arts Place of Stokes, a 6,600-square foot multipurpose space on Danbury’s main drag. Once a home for feral cats, The Arts Place was renovated and built over a number of years, with the most recent addition a 150-seat performance space that is serving as a needed community space and intimate concert venue for nationally touring acts.
Within the last month, the performance space has been host to the Stokes Early College prom, a local songwriters series, a concert by country star Suzy Bogguss, a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and a recital by local young people playing the kind of mountain music that has echoed through the Sauratown Mountains for generations.
That performance packed the place, with more than 150 people watching their children play fiddles, mandolins and guitars.
“We had to bring in more chairs,” said Ellen Peric, the president of the Stokes County Arts Council. “You talk to them and find out a lot of them had never been here before. Now that they’ve been here once, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, this is not something that’s not in my realm. It’s familiar to me now.’ It’s a more accessible outlet for them to connect with the arts in a way that they wouldn’t have had.”
The Arts Place, 502 N. Main St., Danbury, is housed in what was once the Stokes County Bank as well as an adjoining building, across the road from the old courthouse. McGee recently led a tour of The Arts Place, nodding toward a vault in the exhibit space known as The Apple Gallery,
“It’s the most secure cleaning supply closet around,” he said with a laugh.
The Arts Place is a sort of one-stop shop for the arts in the county. Besides serving as the arts council’s headquarters, it has a gallery, gift shop, coffee shop, performance space, classrooms, prep kitchen and a loft where artists-in-residence can work.
Much of the old building’s character was left intact, with wood floors, brick walls and exposed beams.
The Apple Gallery opened in 2008, and has featured a number of regional artists as well as renowned Stokes County artists, Hal Tenny and Rebecca Dresser. The reception from the arts community and the public re-enforced the arts council’s belief that Stokes County was ripe for a bigger space with more programming.
“This gave us the confidence to move forward with a multipurpose venue. We were growing as an arts council. Our audience was growing; our programs were growing. This was the next step,” McGee said. “It was the opposite of ‘Build it and they will come.’ We wanted them to come first.”
With no philanthropic foundation in Stokes County, McGee traveled the state in search of funding, talking to various foundations and individuals with connections to Stokes County and getting grant money.
Big contributions came from Appalachian Regional Commission ($300,000), the Ben and Lemma Apple Foundation ($125,000), the Reynolds American Foundation ($100,000) and the Golden Leaf Foundation ($100,000). Stokes County sources contributed $315,000 — $100,000 from the county and another $215,000 from a local fundraising campaign.
The entire project cost $1.4 million, McGee said.
Stokes County owns The Arts Place buildings and leases them to the arts council for $1 a year. It also provides water and sewer.
The performance space opened in 2017. About 100 areas artists are represented in the gift shop, including glass artists, potters and painters.
Tim Porter, a Stokes County resident, is among them. Porter stopped by the market the other week. “This is a hidden treasure. It’s a big thing in a small town. Growing up in Danbury, there wasn’t a place like this to come to,” he said. “People need to know about this.” McGee is already seeing lots of folks stop by The Arts Place on their way to Hanging Rock State Park, which is about three miles away.
The two places complement each other, with campers at the state park often looking for something to do after a day of hiking or playing in the lake.
“A lot of communities, when they have a place like this, have to create a lot of traffic,” McGee said. “We don’t have to.”
Stokes County musician Rex McGee, a distant relative of Eddy McGee, has played at The Arts Place several times, bringing in nationally renowned banjo players.
“The caliber of artists, musical and otherwise has always been high,” Rex McGee said. “Now it’s great to have a performance space on par with the creative people of our county.”