Red Hot Cross

The Virginia Arts Festivals executive director brings something for everyone in the 2013 edition.

Virginia Arts Festival brings entertainment to Hampton Roads

Robert Cross is thinking ahead. “I’m putting the finishing touches on the 2014 festival right now,” the executive and artistic director of the Virginia Arts Festival says. “It’s just the way the cycle works. I have 2014 done and a little bit of 2015.”

Cross and his 25-person staff were hard at work last year, if the 2013 edition of the festival is any indication. Starting this month, the VAF will once again offer a little something for everyone—from the indie folk of the Indigo Girls to Virginia Opera’s production of Carousel to Grammy-winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

“If you have any interest in the arts and entertainment, it would be impossible for you to turn the pages of the festival brochure and not find something you’d want to go see,” Cross says with no small amount of pride. “There’s something for everyone.”

This year, 18 different venues from across the region will host dozens of concerts, recitals, performances and spectaculars from March to June—not to mention special events within the festival, such as the newly-added Virginia Chocolate Festival, which sees more than 45 different local and national vendors hawking chocolate, and the Virginia Beer Festival, which hosts 125 craft brew makers in Town Point Park. “It’s been a big success,” Cross, a self-professed brew-head, says of the latter. “And we’re adding a second day to it because we’ve been at capacity for it the last few years.”

The event got its start in 1997 as the Virginia Waterfront Festival, a modest affair overseen by Cross and one assistant. Today, it’s cited as one of the top-rated arts attractions on the East Coast, bringing world-class entertainment to several Hampton Roads communities—piano and ballet recitals, world music, classical concerts, one of the world’s largest military tattoo extravaganzas, even an outsized aviation tribute. Importantly, the 2012 edition generated more than $17 million in economic activity thanks to out of town visitors.

Virginia Beach native Cross got the idea for the VAF after attending several out-of-town festivals as a musician with the Virginia Symphony, where he continues to be a salaried percussionist. “I started to dream,” he has said. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a festival here in our community? We’ve got good venues, the water; it’s so nice here.”

Seventeen years later, he almost can’t believe what it’s turned into. “I had a lot of hope and confidence that we would make it work, and that we had a sound plan in place. I didn’t know that it would grow this fast and be embraced by the community like this. We’re a lot further along than I thought we would be in the organization’s history.”

With its success, the festival now has its own downtown offices in Norfolk, complete with a state-of-theart performance space, the Robin Hixon Theater. It now presents year-round events and offers numerous educational arts programs for children across the region. “We are fortunate to have broad support from the different cities,” Cross says. “The economic development folks and the arts community folks and also ticket buyers and donors. I’m proud of the fact that the festival is a good example of what we can accomplish when the region works together.”Virginia Art Festivals

It’s also an opportunity to bring the Hampton Roads area top-notch entertainment it wouldn’t otherwise see (see sidebar). “We are going after the traditional arts patrons who love the orchestra, the ballet and opera, and we also bring in things that will help us introduce the arts to people for the first time,” he says. “And we are trying to broaden the scope and bring arts and entertainment to non-traditional spaces.”

Case in point: This year’s “beyond the concert hall” attractions, which will include outdoor projections of light-based art that will shine up Chrysler Hall and other structures in downtown Norfolk. These free side attractions will hopefully serve as a reminder that great things are happening on stage. “The programming reflects some of my great passions, which would be classical music, dance and world music,” the director says. “We’re very heavy in those genres because that’s what I know and what I love.”

With all that the festival brings, its budget seems rather modest—roughly $6 million. “I look at my colleagues around the country running festivals and performing arts centers, and I look at their budgets and I can brag: What we do with $6 million is remarkable.”

But with the 2013 installment ready to kick off, Cross has his mind on other things. Like next year. But he’s staying mum on details for now. “I always get burned if I let the cat out of the bag, because someone always cancels on me,” he laughs as a reporter pleads. “There’s going to be some great stuff ... there are a couple of big dance things that are going to be remarkable.”

For more information, and to see a full schedule, go to