When the late Charles W. Steger became president of Virginia Tech in 2000, he announced his desire to enhance the presence and practice of the arts on campus. Steger was an enthusiastic champion of the arts and its role in providing Virginia Tech students with a comprehensive education, which he referred to often as “educating the whole student.”
The university launched an arts initiative in 2005 to expand creative practice and support interdisciplinary learning, engagement, and discovery through the arts. The cornerstone project of this initiative would be an innovative facility designed to advance new methods for performance, teaching, research, and outreach.
In March 2010, plans for Virginia Tech's new Center for the Arts were approved by the university's board of visitors, setting into motion the construction of a facility that will help redefine downtown Blacksburg and shape the performing and visual arts environment throughout the region. The 150,000-square-foot facility would include a 1,200-seat theatre, visual arts galleries, studio and teaching spaces for the Department of Communication, and laboratories for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), including a 3,000-square-foot creative performance lab.
Ruth Waalkes joined Virginia Tech in 2009 as the center’s founding director, coming to Blacksburg from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. In 2013 she was also named associate provost for the arts and is responsible for setting strategic direction and creating programmatic priorities for the Arts@VirginaTech, an initiative created to advance the integration of the arts across the university.
The Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech began presenting performances and events in 2009, four years before the Moss Arts Center building opened, in partnership with campus and community partners.
The university broke ground on the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech on June 18, 2010, at the center’s future site on the corner of Main Street and Alumni Mall. The location was strategically chosen to connect downtown Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech campus. Construction began on the facility that fall.
The center’s design was led by the globally renowned architectural firm Snøhetta, winner of the international competition to create a museum pavilion at the World Trade Center site in New York City. Other high-profile projects taken on by the firm include the National Opera House in Oslo, Norway; the Library of Alexandria in Egypt; and the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin. Joining Snøhetta on the project were STV Architects, Holder Construction Co., global engineering and acoustics firm Arup, and Theatre Projects Consultants.
Plans for the center’s theatre included state-of-the-art lighting, projection, and audio systems, with superb acoustics and the technical flexibility and capabilities to present all forms of music, theatre, and dance. Leading the team on matters of acoustics, Arup has worked with major institutions from the Sydney Opera House to the Louvre and the Guggenheim and is well known for excellence in technical performance engineering. With Arup's guidance, the material covering the ceilings and walls of the theatre were tested and specifically selected for its acoustic qualities. Everything in the theatre, from the shape of the theatre boxes and balconies to the positioning of lights, was chosen for its acoustic qualities. The selection of the fixed seating, for example, included the examination of not only comfort, but also acoustic qualities, repeated-use wear, and silence of their moving parts.
The visual arts exhibition galleries in the Center for the Arts were also carefully considered, with an emphasis on versatility in those spaces. The galleries were designed and constructed to support not only traditional two-dimensional and three-dimensional art, but also virtual, digital, live, and performance art. Moveable walls, a variety of lighting options, room darkening capabilities, and more helped make these galleries an adaptive space for visual arts.
Laboratories and studios were developed for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). A shared resource between the Moss Arts Center and ICAT, the four-story experimental Cube is recognized as one of the world’s first full-scale big data exploration facilities. The $15 million theatre and high-tech laboratory is a highly adaptable space for research and experimentation in data exploration, immersive environments, multimedia performances, audio and visual installations, and experiential investigations of all types. This environment can be used by scientists, engineers, composers and artists–anyone who wishes to explore the possibilities of spatial sound.
A little over a week before the Center for the Arts hosted its first performance, Virginia Tech named the $100 million facility in honor of artist and philanthropist Patricia Buckley Moss, whose donation in support of the center was one of the largest gifts the university had received.
Moss, who signs her paintings P. Buckley Moss, committed $10 million toward construction of the center. Moss has works represented in more than 200 galleries, has won numerous awards, and is the namesake of a foundation that works with teachers to promote using the arts in teaching.
With a public announcement on October 23, 2013, the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech became the Moss Arts Center.
The Moss Arts Center marked its public opening with a week of special activities, beginning with the official opening of its visual arts galleries on October 28, 2013. The inaugural exhibitions featured an inspiring blend of tradition and innovation, showcasing the pioneering work of technology-based artists Jennifer Steinkamp and Leo Villareal in the center’s gallery spaces — the Ruth C. Horton Gallery, Miles C. Horton Jr. Gallery, and Sherwood Payne Quillen ’71 Reception Gallery. Also opening was Joan Grossman's This edge I have to jump, an experimental piece commissioned by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) for the center’s experimental performance space, the Cube.
On November 1, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held with Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash, Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger, and Ruth Waalkes, associate provost for the arts and executive director of the Moss Arts Center. That evening, the Philip Glass Ensemble christened the stage of the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre in the Street and Davis Performance Hall with the sold-out performance, Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation, which also featured the Blacksburg Children’s Chorale.
Opening week festivities continued with a community open house on November 3, which featured activities for all ages, a flash mob of small a cappella ensembles, performances by student organizations and dancers, and a community chorus. The open house was capped off by a performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, one of the nation’s most dynamic young classical ensembles.
On November 4, the center presented its first free matinee performance. The Catalyst Quartet took the stage to perform for a capacity crowd of 1,000 elementary school students.
The Moss Arts Center’s inaugural season offered a dynamic range of programming, featuring 21 performances by international, national, and regional touring performing artists and companies — from timeless classics and family-friendly offerings, to works with deep meaning and global themes, to events with a fresh and sometimes unexpected perspective. The center celebrated its successful first season on April 26, 2014, with a special gala celebration featuring R&B and jazz vocalist Natalie Cole and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru)
Virginia Tech is a founding member of Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru), a partnership of colleges and universities committed to transforming higher education to ensure the greatest possible institutional support for arts-integrative research, curricula, programs, and creative practice between the arts, sciences, and other disciplines. It is committed to supporting the growing body of high-quality scholarly and creative production most attainable when disciplines are free to experiment within and across their boundaries.
Salaam: Exploring Muslim Cultures
In the spring of 2015, the center presented the Islamic Worlds Festival, a week-long series of events created to promote understanding about Muslim societies in diverse contexts. The festival featured three headline performances — comedians Maysoon Zayid and Maz Jobrani, hip-hop artist Omar Offendum, and musician Kayhan Kalhor with string quartet Brooklyn Rider — alongside art exhibitions, panel discussions, informal talks, and music performances and demonstrations.
Based on this work, the Moss Arts Center was awarded a grant the following year to strengthen cross-cultural understanding by engaging Virginia Tech students and other communities in Southwest Virginia with the diversity of Muslim cultures. The center was one of only five grantees (four universities and one consortium) in the nation to receive this funding from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters; Building Bridges: Arts Culture and Identity, a component of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation; and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
The multiyear project, Salaam: Exploring Muslim Cultures, included performances, exhibitions, and special engagement events such as story circles and training opportunities in intercultural and interreligious dialogue facilitation. Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum, mixed-media visual artist Saba Taj, and Egyptian musician and DJ Karim Nagi collaborated with Virginia Tech students and community members for months through a series of residency activities, including class visits and workshops, which resulted in an original production that explored Muslim cultures through dance, music-making, visual art, hip-hop, spoken word, and poetry.
Moss Arts Center Ambassadors
In 2015, a Virginia Tech student group was established in support of the arts at Virginia Tech. The Moss Arts Center Ambassadors are a group of dedicated student volunteers who work together to build arts connections across the Virginia Tech campuses and strengthen their educational, leadership, and service experience. Members help curate Moss programs, including performances, community events, and student art exhibitions.
In August 2016, the center presented the inaugural Moss Arts Center Ambassadors’ Student Choice concert, featuring the pop/rock homegrown Virginia band Parachute. In 2016 a student ambassador developed the concept for a music day at Virginia Tech in collaboration with Virginia Tech chemistry professor Gordon Yee. The Moss Arts Center Student Ambassadors organized the first Virginia Tech Music Day that same year. Designed to celebrate the music-making of area performers and share their sounds with the university community, the event features student and local musicians performing throughout the day at various locations across campus.
In the summer of 2016, the Moss Arts Center co-presented Cube Fest with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). The first of what is now an annual event, Cube Fest celebrates spatial music, 3D sound, and the latest advancements in audio technology inside of the Moss Arts Center’s Cube, which contains one of the largest multichannel audio system facilities in the world. With an artist roster of more than 20 international researchers and musicians, the first Cube Fest featured five concerts, each themed to provide a unique experience that pushed the boundaries of spatial sound and explored the capabilities of the Cube. The festival included concerts ranging from a spatialized performance of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to original, venue-specific compositions that cannot be heard anywhere else in the world.
Moss Arts Partners
The center’s advisory board was established in the 2016-2017 season. The Moss Arts Partners (MAPs) are ambassadors and advocates who help advance and guide the mission of the Moss Arts Center, including furthering the center’s development goals and strategies and helping increase community awareness of the center’s programs and impact, through philanthropy, strategic partnerships, and outreach.
Navigating the Pandemic
When the pandemic shifted the landscape of everyday life in the spring of 2020, Moss Arts Center staff worked quickly to find new and creative ways to provide arts experiences to its patrons. The center opened its vault of archival footage to host special viewings of past performances and offered a series of free virtual chats moderated by staff members to help connect and build community at a time when conversation and interaction was needed most.
The center continued its support of student creativity with its Student Arts Spotlight, a virtual exhibition celebrating creativity in the time of social distancing. The center created a dedicated online space to feature the work of Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines. From collages, sketches, and paintings to music performances, digital works, and sculpture, visitors could explore a range of work created by students from various disciplines.
In the fall of 2020, the center announced its HomeStage series, a collection of intimate, virtual performances that offered opportunities to engage directly with artists. The series was exclusive to the center and designed specifically to be presented online. Engagement activities were offered virtually, as well. Artists conducted master classes online and led virtual discussions with Virginia Tech students.
The center partnered with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) to showcase visual stories created by Virginia Tech faculty and students on the exterior of the Moss Arts Center building. Illuminating Flight and Refuge featured a collection of outdoor projection projects blending technology, mapping, personal narratives, and data to tell stories related to the center’s 2020-2021 season theme, “Flight and Refuge.”
In October 2022, the Moss Arts Center announced its first independent guest performing arts curator. North Carolina artist Shirlette Ammons was tapped to bring a new perspective to the center’s performance season, creating a focus on Black Southern artists who effortlessly cross genres and revitalize time-honored music traditions. One critical piece of Ammons’ work as guest curator was a series of conversations with Virginia Tech students and faculty members, which helped inform her curatorial process. Ammons named her selection of performances Up 86 in honor of North Carolina Highway 86, which provides a route between central North Carolina and Virginia and represents how these performances connect communities separated by winding roads. Ammons continues her work as guest curator during the 2023-2024 season.
Member of Major University Presenters
In 2022, the Moss Arts Center joined an elite group of university-affiliated performing arts centers and programs, becoming one of the newest members of Major University Presenters (MUPs), a consortium created to support and advance the work of leading arts presenters at major research universities across the country. The Moss Arts Center is one of only 21 institutions in the country on a roster of leading university arts presenters that includes the University of Illinois (Krannert Center for the Performing Arts), Penn State (Center for the Performing Arts), and Stanford University (StanfordLive! Program and Bing Concert Hall). For more than 20 years, Major University Presenters has facilitated opportunities for its member organizations to share information for benchmarking and improving programs, participate in high-value collaborative opportunities, increase program recognition at local and national levels, engage in national research activities, and make positive, long-term impacts on the performing arts presenting field.