The Virginia Arts Festival was founded nearly 23 years ago by Virginia Beach native Robert Cross, a man many call a visionary. He stays busy, serving as both Executive Director and Perry Artistic Director of the Festival, as well as principal percussionist for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership, the Festival has tripled in size and attendance and attracts performers and audiences from around the globe. Tidewater Women recently talked with Rob about Harry Potter, changing lives, and leaving a legacy.
TW: Rob, did people think you were out of your mind when you started the Festival?
RC: Absolutely. There were people who said, “This is never going to work” or “We’ll never support it.” It was a big decision, but I had a plan. We were very fiscally conservative from the beginning; and while the Festival has grown dramatically these 22 years, it’s been a very careful growth.
TW: Did you ever see yourself being the head of an event of this magnitude?
RC: I definitely saw myself being head of a festival, but I didn’t realize it would grow this quickly and become as large as it is. No, I would have never been that presumptuous or egotistical (laughs).
TW: The Festival’s education programs reach over 30,000 school-age youth each year. How do you make the arts accessible to them?
RC: A couple of things. From the very beginning, education outreach has been a big part of the Festival, and it’s very important to me personally because I had opportunities as a child through great programs at church and school. We work with PTAs, private donors, and foundations to help schools that want to participate but don’t have the funds. We don’t want price to be a barrier. For one thing, doing this is the right thing to do and for another—and this may sound sappy—the arts can change lives. One of the most powerful things is to watch 1500 students taking in a dance performance at Chrysler Hall. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever attended such an event. The place is just electric. It’s fantastic. I encourage anyone who wants to witness this to call us, and we’ll take you to one of our student matinees.
TW: Our readers may take you up on that.
RC: Hey, I’m serious!
TW: This year’s Festival features “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” on the big screen accompanied by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. What can audiences expect?
RC: It actually debuted at Chrysler Hall over Thanksgiving and was a huge success. There are 8 scheduled performances featuring the movie in high-definition. We’ve stripped out all the music and will have the Symphony playing it note for note from John Williams’ score. I don’t have kids, so I didn’t initially realize what a big deal this is.
TW: Well, speaking of your childhood and Harry Potter, was there ever a “magic moment” when you knew you wanted to perform professionally?
RC: I think it was cumulative, like on a path. Growing up, I attended a church and schools that had really great music programs, so I was involved in choir and music at an early age with really good teachers. My piano teacher’s son was a percussionist, and I’d go play drums with him after my lessons. I just got the bug. Then, I worked at Tanglewood [the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and venue for thousands of performances] for two summers in high school and had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t understand what a big deal it was. I just knew that was what I wanted to do for a living, much to the horror of my parents.
TW: And here you are, a man who has performed and rubbed elbows with some of the world’s most famous performing artists. What keeps you humble and grounded?
RC: Oh, that’s easy. My staff, my wife, my mom, my instrument, and my performer friends of decades. There is plenty to keep me grounded.
TW: Let’s talk about your wife, Debra Wendells Cross, the principal flutist for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Do you two ever discuss anything that isn’t arts-related, like, who’s going to bathe the dogs?
RC: We do talk about dogs. My wife is the more talented one in the family, but her passion outside of playing the flute is dogs. She trains dogs for agility trials and as therapy dogs, so I’m the beneficiary of really well-behaved, spoiled-rotten dogs. If we’re not talking about work, we’re probably talking about dogs. We also like to travel, so we talk about that, too.
TW: Any upcoming trips?
RC: We plan to go to Ravinia this summer, home of the Chicago Symphony. We’re also big tennis fans and try to slip up to the U.S. Open for a day or two.
TW: How do you want to be remembered?
RC: Oh, boy. In terms of the arts world, I’d like to think the Festival changed the landscape for performing arts in Hampton Roads. I’d like to build an infrastructure so the Festival will be here long after I’m gone and will be healthy and sustainable.
TW: Rob, best wishes for the coming season.
RC: Thanks. There’s some good stuff this year!