The rhythm of a city is inextricably linked to its live music, hospitality and art pulse points. Winston-Salem receives myriad accolades for being a vibrant nucleus of celebratory events, culinary delights and a musicality all to its own. Richard Emmett and his wife, Kim Lawson, have blessed this city with their ceaseless and boundless energy in making Winston-Salem a formidably musical and delicious destination. They have teamed up to give us some historical perspective to their work here.
Richard currently serves as the Program Director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and is the co-owner/operator of the Ramkat. Kim is the General Manager of the Powder Room Café on Burke Street.
What was the cultural landscape like in Winston-Salem 20-25 years ago?
Historically, this has always been an arts town. Things did decline in the 90s a bit. People certainly worked in town, but there was not much of a nightlife. There were some live shows at Ziggy’s. But, it was during the late 90s that some of the local artists started gallery hop events downtown. The arts scene started to stir up some activity drawing people downtown.
Winston-Salem has always been a city where if you are someone with a vision and will choose to get involved, you can. Back in the 90s, people started to see what the true cultural opportunities were here. Roanoke, Greenville and other cities like those were models for how to get downtowns energized.
The city administration really did make efforts in earnest with downtown music programs, films on Fourth Street, and it was the Stevens Center who was at the forefront programming such things.
There was focused and intentional progress on the hospitality front with effective and generous loans for restaurants. These loans worked not just to improve the façade of restaurants, but also for the interiors, as well. Things were bubbling from a grassroots level, and the city had a real interest in furthering the progress.
What keeps you and your wife on the upward trajectory of innovation and stewardship of the cultural scene…motivation, vision?
We thought Winston-Salem should be more actively engaged with the artistic and musical scene. We both love artists and musicians, and we have always wanted to see them flourish. The creative elements in our community have always needed spaces to tell their stories. We have always maintained that giving artistic people a way to make a living at what they love is huge.
In all of our ventures, we have fostered employees as family. We have kids who have always been willing to help us out by working at large concerts, special events, and/or to lend a hand when needed, even now that they are older and doing their own thing.
We love this community and want to continue to do things to make Winston-Salem a great place to live, work and play.
What accomplishments are you both proud of? Some current and future projects.
We are proud to have played a role in and been a part of an exciting and dynamic time in the city of Winston-Salem’s most recent revitalization. We certainly dove right into it with The Garage – the first nightlife business in the Arts District in this era. We are grateful to have been involved in the Downtown “Music in the Streets” Series, Films on 4th at The Stevens Center, the renovation of the Sawtooth Building into the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts & Hanesbrands Theater. And now, we are so proud of the creation of The Ramkat and The Powder Room Cafe.
We are also very proud that many of the folks that we have worked for and with have gone on to have successful careers themselves as entrepreneurs, business people and not-for-profit organization leaders in this community.
What can the local community do to foster and be caretakers of the cultural environs?
We are adamant that people buy and support local businesses. Eat at local restaurants. Support local independent and not-for-profit arts organizations (Ramkat, Bookmarks, A/perture Cinema, Theater Alliance and the many other arts organizations affiliated with the Arts Council). Share and tell others about all the great things that can be found and enjoyed here.
What do you see as the future of Winston-Salem and the music and arts scene?
Don’t really have a crystal ball, but we feel it will continue to grow, change and become more inclusive and diverse.
Why is it even important for Winston-Salem to maintain a standing as culturally relevant and vibrant?
A strong, vibrant and culturally relevant arts and entertainment scene has been one of the key aspects of Winston-Salem’s revitalization. People have come to see Winston-Salem as an off-the-beaten path, less well-known version of Asheville, Charleston or Savannah. Winston-Salem has always been known for punching above its weight in arts and entertainment; with a lower cost of living, a walkable downtown and much less traffic than other similar towns. It’s what differentiates us from other places and has been crucial in the growth of downtown, especially the growth of downtown residences.
Who would you nominate as a local person of prominence?
Lawren Desai, who is the owner of the downtown art house cinema known as A/perture Cinema. Lawren is a true pioneer and took it upon herself to give the city something new and vital. Her arthouse cinema in the heart of downtown lends itself so well to the artistic fabric of the city.