Michael Tahaney compares New Bern’s arts and culture scene to a bird ready for flight: “Its wings are spread, and this town is taking off,” he says. Tahaney, executive director
Michael Tahaney compares New Bern’s arts and culture scene to a bird ready for flight: “Its wings are spread, and this town is taking off,” he says. Tahaney, executive director of the coastal town’s New Bern Civic Theatre, attributes the flight of theater, art, and music to a creative culture that welcomes artists of all types.
It’s hard not to feel inspired in a town where two picturesque rivers join forces to offer sweeping waterfront views at every turn, Tahaney points out. Add to that a historic downtown scene, small-town hospitality, and a vibrant local community, and you get a magnetic cultural scene.
Anchor your next trip to New Bern around one of its annual arts festivals, and you, too, will embrace a colorful new perspective as you explore this haven of creativity.
Picture yourself where the people are as warm and welcoming as spring. Where rivers meet and adventure follows. Palace gardens are around the corner, with the Birthplace of Pepsi up ahead. Next stop: New Bern.
To shine the spotlight on its flourishing arts community, this year New Bern will hold its first annual Arts in April. The month-long celebration kicks off on April 1 with family-friendly activities in front of The Athens Theatre on the 400 block of Pollock Street.
All afternoon, you can wander a carnival-like scene with street performers, musicians, and a beer garden. Meanwhile, kids and adults are invited to grab a piece of chalk and leave their mark on an enormous street mural.
Cap off the weekend’s revelries with the children’s musical Honk! Jr., presented by New Bern Civic Theatre.
The third weekend in April is Garden Lovers’ Weekend at Tryon Palace, and features free entry to the gardens, plein air artists, and classical period performances.
A music festival the weekend of April 14-15 features three ticketed headliner concerts, but even if you don’t have tickets, you’re still guaranteed a musical weekend. On Saturday, local musicians perform in front of downtown storefronts and parks in a series of mini-concerts. “If you’re a music lover, from the kickoff on Friday night all the way to Sunday mid-day, it’s going to be all music, all the time, everywhere downtown,” Tahaney says.
At the Athens Theatre, catch performances by Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, a global jazz and exotic chamber music group, and the Nelson String Quartet, known for combining tunes from Bach to The Beatles, Etta James to Sting.
The following weekend, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the New Bern Historical Society with an all-day street festival, a vaudeville show, and an interactive street event that ties into Earth Day.
And during the final weekend of April, everyone is invited to join in a community painting day. Check out the full Arts in April schedule at Visit New Bern.
Mother’s Day marks the start of the third annual North Carolina Plein Air Festival in New Bern, a week-long painting competition of 35 national artists, May 14-21. Plein air painting — or painting what the artist sees in the natural world — gives participants a chance to enjoy New Bern’s beauty as they improve their techniques and increase their speed.
Spectators benefit, too. “Plein air is the only thing I know of that allows the public to see the creative process from beginning to end,” says Kippy Hammond, the event’s coordinator.
Hammond adds that watching artists in action can spark renewed interest in painting — or inspire people to pick up a paintbrush for the first time. Many art collections begin at plein air events, she says. “Some of the paintings are sold straight off the easel.”
Check the festival’s app to locate artists and their locations, as well as information about demonstrations, workshops, and pop-up sales. “For people who are new to plein air events, the app also gives tips for interacting with artists in the wild,” Hammond says.
In November, the New Bern Artists Studio Tour, organized by Craven County Arts Council, offers a peek into the town’s special spaces where creativity blooms. Last year’s event featured 50 artists who work in a variety of media — glass, clay, and paint, to name a few.
In addition to special events, New Bern gives residents and visitors year-round options for embracing the arts.
Downtown comes alive on the second Friday of each month with ArtWalk. Around 30 shops and galleries extend their hours to showcase artists and welcome art lovers. “Our downtown has six dedicated gallery spaces within three blocks,” says Jonathan Burger, executive director of Craven County Arts Council. “With all the variety, people are sure to find something they love.”
Start your evening with a glass of wine, and get a first peek at the latest exhibit at Craven Arts Council & Gallery. Pick up a map of the ArtWalk circuit at this gallery and shop, filled with works of local and regional artists. Along the self-guided tour, featured artwork is celebrated with refreshments and live music.
In addition to sponsoring ArtWalk, Craven Arts Council hosts exhibitions each month. Its May show, “ROY G BIV,” invites artists to create one-square-foot art in a single hue. These pieces will line the walls of the gallery in a rainbow of colors.
In the heart of New Bern, all types of locally created art fills Community Artists Gallery & Studio on Middle Street. At this cooperative of artists from Craven and surrounding counties, visitors stumble upon photography and paintings created with watercolors, pastels, and acrylics ranging from abstract designs to landscapes. The gallery also displays handmade jewelry, purses, textiles, and the works of emerging artists.
Travel back to the early 19th century at the newly opened Baxter’s 1892, inspired by its century-old building. Every Wednesday through Sunday night, the elegantly appointed venue features live jazz, blues, singer-songwriters, and easy listening. “We really want to focus on presenting quality music in a truly professional way,” co-owner Tyler Griffin says.
Take a seat at the bar and sip a Buttercup, a specialty cocktail made with brown-butter-washed bourbon, amaretto, and cherry-vanilla bitters, as the night’s performers croon away on the elevated stage. With a sound system designed by the Emmy Award-winning Chuck Davis and the famed drummer Bernard Purdie in its house band, you’re in for a musical treat.
Just around the corner, Bank of the Arts hosts intimate At the Gallery Concerts five times a year, representing the music of 20th-century songwriters. The May 20 show will feature local group The Bonafides performing Fleetwood Mac. Enjoy a pre-concert talk about the night’s music selection as well as wine and refreshments at intermission.
Footloose on the Neuse, New Bern’s free summertime concert series, features a wide range of music styles — rock, beach, soul, and classic rock. Mark your calendar for Friday, May 26, when the series kicks off at Union Point Park. Plan to bring the kids, your camp chairs, and enough energy to dance the night away on the waterfront.
Also in May, the North Carolina Symphony comes to town to perform at the Riverfront Convention Center. Sit back and relax, as Michelle Di Russo conducts classical favorites, including Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
On July 29, when the lights dim in New Bern Civic Theatre, the fifth-annual North Carolina Film Festival begins. With entries from filmmakers around the world, this day-long celebration of cinema screens films from all genres.
River Town Players hosts musicals, plays, and other performances in the historic Masonic Theatre. Originally built for vaudeville acts and concerts, the theater housed Confederate arms and later a Union hospital during the Civil War. This season, you can see the Tony Award-winning Urinetown: The Musical three weekends in June. In August, Harvey hits the stage, and in October, see the musical Newsies Jr. Winter Wonderettes, a musical revue filled with holiday tunes that will make your December jolly.
The completely renovated Athens Theatre, built in 1911 for vaudeville, traveling theater groups, and silent movies, is now home to New Bern Civic Theatre. A teen production of North Carolina playwright Bill Cissna’s Rehearsals, a parody about community theater, premieres in July. In September, the theater will host two plays, Maytag Virgin, a mature romantic comedy, and The Revolutionists, about four historically significant women during the French Revolution.
New Bern Civic Theatre’s encore season ranges from Scottish Folk music and improv comedy to jazz and a celebration of African American heritage and culture. Thanks to its new custom-designed audio system, Tahaney says the sound is truly astonishing.
As your New Bern arts and culture retreat comes to an end, you’ll see why the town is inspiring a new class of creators. “There are a lot of artists here, working together, teaching each other,” Burger says. “They’re helping each other to create new and better work each time they do.”