Q: Who is Virginia Anne Sharber?
I am a native Chattanoogan. I grew up on Signal Mountain, the oldest of four children. My parents are retired Circuit Court Judge Robert Summitt and the late Flo Varnell Summitt, who founded and was the long-time producer of the Oak Street Playhouse at First Centenary United Methodist Church. My very talented mother was an art major who attended Newcomb College and graduated from the University of Chattanooga. Her creativity and enthusiasm for art certainly heavily influenced me. I remember her taking me to the Hunter Museum when I was a child for art classes and have fond memories of visiting the Hunter with her and my grandmother.
Since 1985 I have been married to Hugh Sharber, a partner at Miller & Martin, PLLC. We met in law school and have three grown children—Evan, a graduate of Washington & Lee University, now in law school at UT, Kate, a graduate of University of the South, now living in Nashville and Meg a May 2015 graduate of the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Like many Chattanoogans, I maintain an involvement in the arts, having performed in school and community theater productions. In college, I continued performing with the “Original Cast”, a Broadway revue group. Even as an adult, I occasionally perform in local community theater productions and have played in my church’s handbell choir. Chattanooga has so many cultural organizations and a vibrant and growing art scene.
Q: You attended Vanderbilt University before UT Law School—what’s kept you in Tennessee?
Even though my father jokingly expressed concern that I would head to New York City to pursue a professional dancing career, I always knew I wanted to come back to my hometown. After college and law school, when I returned home to practice law in 1984, I saw a community beginning to turn its city around, adopting bold visions for what Chattanooga could be. Citizens rolled up their sleeves, joined forces and made those visions reality.
I constantly meet people who have chosen to relocate themselves and their families to Chattanooga from other communities. Now, there are so many opportunities for all of us in Chattanooga to get involved and play a role in how our city develops.
Q: It’s a bit unusual for an accomplished attorney to become the Executive Director of a community’s leading art institution. What led you down that path?
At Miller & Martin, I had the opportunity to work with some of the finest, smartest people. I enjoyed the work I did as a commercial real estate attorney and got a lot of satisfaction seeing some of the real estate projects I had been involved with come to fruition throughout the city.
From the first day I started practicing law, I got involved in community endeavors, participating in the 1988-89 class of Leadership Chattanooga and serving on the board of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. Later, I was asked to serve on the board of ArtsBuild (then Allied Arts) and I was on that board for over 20 years.
During that experience, I learned about many of the city’s cultural organizations and the incredible work they were doing, not only by providing enriching cultural experiences, but also in educating our youngest citizens, creating community and bringing people of different backgrounds together. I chaired a number of other community boards over the years, including Public Art Chattanooga and Mayor Berke’s Chattanooga Forward Arts & Culture Task Force.
When the director of the Hunter resigned last January, the Hunter Board approached me about stepping in as the interim director while the Board conducted a search for a new permanent director. Once in position as the interim, I became excited about the opportunity of further enhancing the contributions the Hunter can make in our community.
Q: The Hunter Museum of American Art is one of the most vibrant and active organizations when it comes to events, activities and concerts—activities most people don’t traditionally associate with a museum—why is that important?
The Hunter is a cultural hub for the community and a wonderful art museum. Visitors from other communities are often surprised at the quality of the collection found in a museum in a city the size of Chattanooga. We have so many wonderful benefactors to thank for that. Many who have played instrumental roles in the development of our city were also supporters of the Hunter, helping it become the highly regarded museum that it is today.
To ensure that the Hunter will be around for another 64 years, we need to develop relationships with the next generation of museum patrons. We purposefully plan events and programs such as live band concerts on the 24-hour terrace in the summer, yoga classes every month, regular panel discussions about current issues, monthly musical brunches, children, youth and adult art classes, and interesting lectures to entice visitors to the museum. We want people who might feel intimidated by the notion of “fine art” to just visit the museum to see what we are about. Once they experience the Hunter, they will realize they don’t need to be intimidated. The museum has something for everyone, not just the art experts. It is a cultural hub with multiple experiences designed just for visitors.
The Hunter hosts 4-5 exciting temporary exhibitions each year, attracting well over 35,000 visitors to the museum this past summer.
Every day, the Hunter exhibits a portion of the over 5,000 works of American art in its permanent collection and shares 20 sculptures in the public plaza in front of the museum and at Renaissance Park, the Chattanooga Zoo and several locations in downtown Chattanooga. Trained docents are available to give guided tours and technology provides additional information for those who take self-guided tours.
Art + Issues community discussions
ArtWise Distinguished Speakers series
Children, youth and adult art classes
Summer camp sessions
All American Summer live band concerts
Music Brunch series
Cocktails in Color series
Facility for community, corporate and private events
String Theory Performances
Club Hunter during Riverbend
New Year’s Eve Party on the Bluff
Q: Nationally, most nonprofits have experienced a decline of charitable giving since 2009. How has the Hunter adapted? What is your largest challenge ahead?
The charitable giving landscape definitely has changed. Many individuals and corporations that financially supported the museum in the past are no longer in Chattanooga and funding priorities change over the years. All nonprofits, especially arts organizations, have to adapt to meet funding challenges created by trends in charitable giving. The Hunter is meeting that challenge by engaging new audiences, meeting them where they are. For years, the Hunter has educated and served as a community anchor and steward of our national heritage. We also have played a role in driving tourism, attracting business to the community and serving as a source of immense civic and community pride. As society changes, so must the Hunter. The good news is, the challenge of change is really an opportunity.
Photography by Steven Lorca