Little Washington's big arts community

Posted May 28, 2019 5:00 a.m. EDT

Mosaic crab statues can be found throughout downtown Washington, N.C. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

In 1978, after nearly 50 years as a successful palace-style theater and before that, a vaudeville stage, the Turnage Theatre in Washington, N.C., closed its doors. By then, larger movie theaters had become popular across the state, and the old building began to fall into disrepair.

Despite an effort by historic preservationists and advocates of local arts to renovate the theater in the late 1990s, it wasn't until the Arts of the Pamlico (previously the Beaufort County Arts Council) took over the effort in 2013 that the mission saw success.

One hundred years after the initial vaudeville theater opened, AOP purchased the building and restored the 432-seat theater for community use.

"The Historic Turnage Theatre is now the centerpiece of the arts community in Washington, which is a hub for the arts in eastern North Carolina," said Debra Torrence, executive director of the Arts of the Pamlico.

What Does the Turnage Theatre Offer?

The theater offers a variety of programs ranging from monthly art exhibits and theater performances to photography shows, arts camps for youth, and festivals featuring art, music and wildlife.

The Arts of the Pamlico arts council has re-imagined the Historic Turnage Theatre, turning it into more than just a stage. It is a community hotspot for all kinds of arts activities and events.

The auditorium hosts live theatrical performances and music events – both acoustic and amplified – from rock and jazz bands to choral and orchestral societies.

East Carolina University showcases two operas each year – this year will feature both a world premier written for ECU's Opera Theatre ("Tell It Slant") and a classic opera ("The Coronation of Poppea").

Additionally, there are community theater and dance productions, as well as Broadway camps and shows from the Bubblegum Theatre for Youth.

Local groups also use the space for meetings and events. Writer's groups, rock groups, weaving clubs and more call the theater home. The fully restored palace building includes a stage, print shop, pottery space and a green room for use by community groups.

Why Washington?

This little haven along the Pamlico River is unique in many ways that have made it a flourishing arts community — where there is beauty, there is inspiration.

"The natural beauty, the innovative entrepreneurs, the large boating industry," Torrence explained. "Plus the proximity to New Bern and Greenville creates this arts triangle where everyone is celebrating the history and the arts of the area collectively."

Economy and Art

The arts are an important part of Little Washington's tourism. It brings people to the community and encourages contributions to the economy, from buying local art to staying in local hotels and B&Bs, to eating at local restaurants.

More than $2.1 billion is generated by the nonprofit arts and culture sector in North Carolina in direct economic activity, with over $200 million in revenue for state and local governments. Beaufort County's arts alone contribute $14 million to the economy as well as 440 jobs annually.

"Wherever there's art, there's people coming to see the art. And this is a thriving community, from the art standpoint," said Art Tyndall, a local painter with a studio in downtown Little Washington.

This is an important characteristic as businesses look to relocate to towns that center around creativity. Communities that already have impactful arts cultures are attractive for companies, residents and visitors.

"We are a very welcoming community with quite a diversity of art and cultural opportunities," Torrence said.

With the new addition of acoustic music in the Arts Café, more youth art programs, growing stage training for youth and adults, and opportunities for more dances thanks to the recent donation of a large dance floor in the Turnage Gallery, the Historic Turnage Theatre continues to expand its offerings.

The council's focus on ensuring the arts continue to thrive has helped to build not only a strong arts community in Washington, but a community that contributes to the economic development of eastern North Carolina in lasting, creative ways.

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.