Bringing the arts to Bedford

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Volunteer Sara Braaten has been driving force behind Bower Center’s success

By Tom Wilmoth

    When the Bower Center for the Arts experienced financial difficulties three years ago, the organization was forced to let its executive director go.
    There wasn’t enough money to pay her.
    In stepped Sara Braaten, who took over the position on an interim volunteer basis. She’s still there and has been the driving force behind transforming the organization “from a quiet little-known center for the visual and performing arts into a lively and exciting center for Bedford’s growing arts community.”
    That statement was submitted by Sergei Troubetzkoy, Bedford Tourism director, in an award nomination letter to the James River Council for the Arts & Humanities on behalf of Braaten.
    Braaten was recently named as that organization’s recipient of the Arts Volunteer Award.
    “Obviously I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t like it and it was a challenge,” Braaten said of her work at the Bower Center for the Arts.

    And the Center’s work is growing.
    Braaten is pleased with the success of the efforts to expand the art programs to children in the community. There are afternoon programs with students during the school year and four weeks of camps are planned for this summer.
    And the performing arts and exhibit programs are also growing. Braaten said the success is not in just the programs, but also “in the people we’ve been able to get involved.”
    In his nomination letter, Troubetzkoy noted that Braaten, working without compensation, is on-site at the Center almost daily, many times putting in 12-hour days.
    “The transformation that The Bower Center has made over the past three years is quite simply astounding,” noted Troubetzkoy.
     In May of 2010, the Bower Center served as the catalyst for a major art exhibition, “More Than A Mountain” which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Nearly 200 art works were submitted and were on display at five locations throughout Bedford attracting hundreds of people to the community to see and purchase the art. “Without the hard work of Sara and other volunteers associated with The Bower Center, this exhibition would not have happened,” Troubetzkoy stated.
    And Braaten hopes such collaborative efforts with others will continue to grow. She said a group of Centertown artists plan to get together soon to look for more ways to work together to help Centertown grow as an arts community.
    The current Black and White exhibit at the Center brought in more than 180 pieces of art.
    A teacher for almost three decades, Braaten enjoys providing opportunities for children to discover their talents and for them to “be able to do something they’re really interested in and have a talent for.”
    “You are giving them something that will last a lifetime,” she said of working with the children. That includes helping them develop the problem solving skills art involves at an early age.
    “They’re not just creating, they’re problem solving,” Braaten said.
    She praised the instructors at the Center and believes Bedford will be better in the long run as the arts program expands in the community.
    Arts and antiques bring in visitors, she said, adding that brings growth.
    Her nomination for the award noted a number of achievements, including:
    • donation of funding for some part-time support staff;
    • donation of a Grand Piano to the Bower Center for use for many of the concerts that they sponsor;
    • art show openings and/or performances at The Bower Center in conjunction with Bedford’s 2nd Fridays;
    • Bedford’s Annual Cajun Crawfish Festivals at The Bower Center, a major fundraiser;                        • classes for children and for adults including painting, mosaics, pottery, photography and a popular music lab. Many of these offerings are designed for underprivileged children and offered to them for free:; and
    • the Bower Center’s schedule of exhibits and concerts.
    “Sara Braaten has done more than any single individual to make The Bower Center for the Arts a premier center for the visual and performing arts,” Troubetzkoy stated. “She has done all of this through the donation of countless hours, energy and money. She also serves on the Board of Bedford Main Street, Inc. and works closely with local galleries and other arts organizations.”
    Braaten notes, however, that she doesn’t plan to serve as “interim executive director” forever — after all, she is retired. The Center is moving toward hiring some paid staff.
    The volunteer award from the James River Council for the Arts & Humanities  was given out during an event held Feb. 18 in Lynchburg. Braaten, however, wasn’t there to receive it in person. She was in Atlanta, Ga., playing laser tag at a birthday part for her grandson.