Pro-Art was formed in the late 1970’s by a small group of citizens in Wise, Virginia who wanted to bring performing arts from outside the region to their home in the folds of the Appalachian Mountains. In years prior to the formation of Pro-Art, people would have to travel long distances to see a play, orchestra, or to experience a culture different from their own—or, as was more common—they did without. Enter Founder Daisy Portuando, a native of Cuba, strong leader, and someone who historically did not take “no” for an answer. Daisy came to Wise County when her husband Augusto became a Spanish professor and Foreign Language Department Head at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Daisy wanted her daughters to learn ballet, which at the time, was not available in the area. She got a small group together and led the way by creating the Wise School of Dance. One project snowballed into another, and soon she found herself involved with various community projects in the arts including the International Arts Festival, Christmas Around the World, and within a few years, Pro-Art and the Creative Arts Summer Camp.
Pro-Art was officially established in 1976, attained nonprofit status in 1980, and grew to be a fixture in our region known for bringing professional performing arts of all types to Wise County, as well as directly to our children through performances in area schools. In a 2017 feature in UVa-Wise magazine, Bonnie Elosser remembers that residents were astounded to see artists from around the world performing in their own hometown. Portuondo’s strong dedication brought world-class performances to far Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and for the first thirty years, Pro-Art actively exposed the region to the most diverse cultural arts programs available.
In 2007, Daisy retired and Bonnie Elosser, a long-time Pro-Art board member and civic-minded leader was named Executive Director. Bonnie inherited a legacy, but also something unexpected—serious financial troubles. Like many organizations experience at one time or another, Pro-Art Association encountered financial difficulties when it reached its third decade.
“There was no money, and a significant amount of debt,” Elosser explained. The executive committee met to discuss the dire situation and reluctantly voted “to close the doors for good,” believing the situation to be beyond repair. However, soon after the meeting, Elosser was contacted by Merry Lu Prior, a board member and spouse of then Chancellor David J. Prior. Mrs. Prior told her “do not close the doors.” She told Elosser that Chancellor Prior would be in contact within hours. Chancellor Prior contacted Elosser and asked her and the Board of Trustees to come up with a financial plan to save the organization. Although they had to cancel the already booked spring season and buy out numerous contracts, Elosser sacrificed her salary and received funding from UVa-Wise to pay the staff for six months.
Within two weeks the Board of Trustees came together and raised $50,000 and developed the long-range financial plan Chancellor Prior requested. In return for this financial support, Pro-Art provides a UVa-Wise Cultural Arts series on the campus. The Pro-Art Trustees and Officers, and the Chancellor of UVa-Wise worked together to manage programming and pay off all debts thereby ensuring the survival of Pro-Art. Elosser said, “It is truly a blessing to be debt free during a time when arts organizations all over the state are closing or struggling financially.” Pro-Art credits UVa-Wise, Mountain Empire Community College, the C. Bascom Slemp Foundation and many other contributors for helping to revive Pro-Art.
Bonnie also worked hard to build numerous community partnerships and helped expand programming to Lee and Dickenson Counties. Working with MECC during Home Craft Days and co-sponsoring the Celtic Festival in Big Stone Gap, are just a couple of the community partnerships that Bonnie forged and good examples of the ways Pro-Art continues to provide a variety of experiences in the arts that are both entertaining and educational.
Daisy and Augusto Portuando
In 2013, Pro-Art became affiliated with Junior Appalachian Musicians, allowing our organization to become the local sponsor for the rapidly successful WiseJAMs program. WiseJAMs provides 3rd—8th grade students the opportunity to have an Appalachian music experience of their very own by teaching them to play, sing, and dance to Old-Time music. Some children have never had the opportunity to hear live music, so WiseJAMs is truly a unique experience—teaching them to play a stringed instrument and also helping them understand the musical heritage of the place where they live. Further, our WiseJAMs program allows students to experience community through the joy of participating in traditional mountain music together. In 2017, the Dominion Foundation awarded the Pro-Art WiseJAMs program a $10,000 Shining Star Award for providing this opportunity to the children of Wise County.
Daisy recruited Jan to become a member of the Board of Trustees in 2001 and she later served as treasurer, president-elect, and president at various times. Zentmeyer has been around for both the good times and the bad. In fact, she was president-elect when Elosser, Chancellor David Prior, and a strong Board of Trustees helped revive the organization in 2007. Jan brings a love of the performing arts and artists to Pro-Art, and is committed to maintaining fiscal responsibility while continuing Pro-Art's commitment to bringing professional performing arts to the children and communities of Virginia’s great southwest for many years to come.
Bonnie retired after 10 and a half years at the helm, and long-time Board member and patron of the arts Jan Zentmeyer was appointed Executive Director in July of 2017. Jan is only the third Executive Director in the history of Pro-Art. Jan first got involved with Pro-Art when her daughters attended the annual Pro-Art Summer Art Camp, and she and her husband began taking their daughters to Pro-Art performances as soon as they could sit still.
Currently, Pro-Art is in its 4th decade of promoting the arts and expanding accessibility to cultural experiences in Southwest Virginia. The organization provides about 35 programs annually in Wise, Lee, and Dickenson counties and the City of Norton, including 15-20 school programs. The staff and Board of Trustees work to include theater, a variety of music, and visual arts programs in our season offerings as well as several master classes, workshops, and lectures regarding performing and visual arts. Wise County Schools depend on Pro-Art to provide arts programming for their students. Pro-Art also provides a number of performances at the renovated Lee Theatre in Pennington Gap. This project is part of the Main Street improvement program and Pro-Art is happy to contribute to the success of the theatre annually. Lee and Dickenson County residents and patrons near and far look forward to and appreciate the programs that Pro-Art brings to our region.
Pro-Art appreciates and works hard to maintain sustainable relationships with the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Mountain Empire Community College, Wise County, Lee County, the City of Norton, and the towns of Wise, Big Stone Gap, and Pennington Gap, as well as the Slemp, Columbus Phipps, Richard and Leslie Gilliam, Marvin and Marcia Gilliam Jr. Foundations, and Virginia Commission for the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts. Without their continued support, there would be no Pro-Art.
Whether it is working with local schools to provide children with their first live music experience, or presenting culturally relevant performances like American Shakespeare Center or Symphony of the Mountains, Pro-Art is developing relationships and forging connections where they are needed most—our local communities. We continue to be a thriving arts organization that is positioned to provide quality arts entertainment and education far into the future. Pro-Art Association has truly become a community centered organization dedicated to providing quality arts programs throughout the region. We believe that when we band together, we are better able to survive—and thrive. We will continue to unify our community through these events, as we have seen first-hand that bringing people together is the best way to build our communities.
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