News & Features » Cover Story

Broad Street Revivalists

The galleries and businesses of First Fridays Art Walk are the 2009 Richmonders of the Year.

by

6 comments
cover01_richmonder_year_200_0.jpg

 

ff_outside_crowd_300_0.jpg

First Fridays generates all manner of traffic during the Dec. 4 event along Broad Street downtown.

The streets hop with absurdity -- a dancing Statue of Liberty and former Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo lurch in the darkness and a blown transformer has knocked out the streetlights -- in the 100 block of West Broad Street.
 
Ken Chandler, dressed in full 1860s regalia, stands on the front steps of the Richmond Renaissance Center awaiting a bus carrying tourists from Indiana. That he's here isn't the oddity. (Chandler's a Revolutionary War re-enactor: “I get to teach kids and shoot guns,” he says, without irony.) What's unusual is that this typically barren stretch of Broad Street brims with people who seem perfectly at ease on the darkened sidewalks Dec. 4, a chilly Friday night.

David Lewark, dressed as Lady Liberty, hands out slices of pizza to passersby to celebrate his yet-to-open Liberty Tax office at 1 E. Broad St., a block away. He ponders the nonworking streetlamps -- “Is it always like this?” -- but only briefly. It's obvious why he and his business partner chose Broad Street to open their newest income-tax preparation office.

“It's what you see right here -- foot traffic,” he says, dancing off into the twilight.

Despite the city's best bureaucratic beadledom, First Fridays Art Walk, an eight-year-old, grass-roots arts and cultural festival, has quietly accomplished what a half-billion dollars of city infrastructure and years of big promises failed to do: bring people back downtown.

The event, held the first Friday of every month, packs the streets, 13 galleries and eight new restaurants, with all manner of hipsters, boomers, stroller-pushing soccer moms, college students, artists and young professionals. The event draws between 4,000 and 6,000 spectators downtown a month, with the numbers spiking higher during the warmer months. That's an estimated 85,000 people annually. 

In a year of so much upheaval and economic depression, both the physical and mental varieties, Richmond needed a gathering place, a community fulcrum that brings us together. That it's taking place on Broad Street -- from Belvidere to Second Street, extending into Monroe Ward and Jackson Ward -- is symbolically significant, too. The long-forgotten commercial corridor harbors a painful racial history -- blacks were confined to the north side of the street not that long ago -- and retail-killing white flight. It offers the best evidence yet that city center finally is turning the page, laying the foundation for the proverbial bridge between old and new Richmond.

But it couldn't have happened without the pioneers of this revival: the art galleries, the struggling artists and the risk-taking restaurant owners. For their investments, energy and faith, Style Weekly names the First Fridays Art Walk organizers -- the gallery and business owners who took a chance on Broad Street -- as the 2009 Richmonders of the Year.

 

ff_gallery5_500_0.jpg

Fire spinner Conway Jennings, in front of Gallery5 on Marshall Street on Dec. 4, draws a crowd of twenty and thritysomethings and a few children. After a brush with police in early October, the G5 fire spinners have returned as fixtures.

 

THAT First Fridays happened organically means it also comes with a few warts. It isn't perfect. The event goes on despite frequent political infighting within the arts community and the city's bureaucracy. The city's Community Assisted Public Safety program nearly shut down the event at various points in 2009. Mixing 100-year-old buildings and thousands of people comes with building code issues, it turns out.

The irony is sometimes illuminating. For the final First Fridays Art Walk of the year, on the same night the James Center tosses the switch for its Grand Illumination, the event takes place in the dark along a stretch of Broad still perceived by many as crime-ridden. No matter. The December First Fridays, when there was an electric malfunction, still ends up drawing about 4,000 people.

Harry Moseley, co-owner of the Renaissance Center, says losing the lights cost restaurant owners and other businesses much-needed traffic. Business owners took a “25-percent shot in the pants as a result of the lights being out,” he says. “People drove up and down Broad Street -- and you saw dark.”

Still, it doesn't seem to faze the galleries. At Quirk Gallery, which opened in 2005, the makeshift gift shop is standing room only. The customers aren't spending much but the scene has the feel of a Hallmark shop on Christmas Eve, spilling out into the sidewalk and the adjacent alley, where small artisans have set up shop. “It's as easy as opening the door,” says Katie Ukrop, Quirk's owner. “When we first opened, I didn't know if anybody would come.”

 

ff_quirk_300.jpg

Quirk Gallery, an art house that morphs into a gift shop, draws thousands during the last Art Walk of 2009.

While the Art Walk has been a social and cultural success, it has yet to become a retail destination. Most of the crowd that shows up for the December event is content to window shop; art purchases often are rare, which leaves gallery owners struggling to make rent and survive as actual businesses.

Anne Hart Chay, owner of the Visual Art Studio at 208 W. Broad St., says she often works 90 hours a week to make ends meet. A painter and photographer, she sold her house and purchased the building in 1997, but it took three years to do the renovation and secure funding with the city to open her gallery in 2000.

“I had to kind of squat here,” she says. “I didn't have any heat, any air conditioning, a kitchen or anything until 1999. I had to unplug stuff just to use the toaster or the hair dryer.” It took four or five years for the business to start rolling in. But even today, the traffic isn't enough to pay the bills, she says: “I'm working like twice as hard to make less money.”

At the more financially stable 1708 Gallery, part of a 31-year-old nonprofit arts group, sales have also been down this year, says Jolene Elizabeth Giandomenico, the gallery's administrator. While the gallery typically draws about 2,000 to 5,000 on First Fridays, sales usually come later, she says.
 
“We don't typically sell work on First Fridays,” Giandomenico says, adding that it's more of an exhibition. “It's a great community event and a great way to bring people downtown.”

The restaurants that have popped up along Broad since First Fridays started gathering steam -- Comfort, Belvidere at Broad, Bistro Twenty Seven, Popkin Tavern and Tarrant's CafAc among them -- wouldn't be here if not for the Art Walk. 

Ted Santarella, owner of Tarrant's, first looked at the building where his business is located, at 1 W. Broad St., in February 2006 and balked. He saw the thugs walking by and was concerned about foot traffic -- where would his customers come from? But then he came down for a First Fridays in May and changed his mind. He opened Tarrant's in September 2006.

“When I started, people thought I was nuts for coming down here,” he says. “The galleries are really the reason why I'm still in business.”

 

ff_metro_gallery_300_0.jpg

Kate Horne, director of Metro Space Gallery, oversees the gallery's "Too Big to Fail" exhibit during the Dec. 4 Art Walk. The gallery was launched by Marc Szafranski, owner of Metro Sound & Music next door, a longtime Broad Street business owner.

But it hasn't been easy. Santarella lives in an apartment above the restaurant, and says crime and shootings are a monthly occurrence. “Police don't have the manpower to enforce the curfew after 10 o'clock,” he surmises. “There is cruising up and down the street, then they get all jacked up on Red Bull. I see it and hear it all the time.”

Still, there's progress. He says the new administration at City Hall has been more responsive to the event's organizers and their persistent problems than the last. When the city's building and fire code officials threatened to shutter the event in the fall, Mayor Dwight Jones intervened and set up a meeting with gallery owners, high-ranking administrators and code enforcement officials in mid-October. A final compromise has yet to be reached, but there's talk of establishing an arts district along Broad and relaxing some of the building code restrictions at participating venues.

The mayor regularly visits Tarrant's, and other restaurants, for lunch and dinner, perhaps the most important display of support. Jones “eats here at least once a week, along with a lot of people from City Hall,” Santarella says. “We are starting to get that community sense.”

Scott Garnett, co-owner of Lift, a coffee shop at 218 W. Broad St., says the crime has improved considerably since he opened four years ago. And he says the Jones administration, particularly Rachel Flynn, director of community development, is much easier to deal with.

“They actually listen,” Garnett says, offering a recent building-code issue, an outdated certificate of occupancy, as an example. “We ran into a zoning issue and we had it resolved in a day,” he says. “Without Rachel and her staff, it wouldn't have happened.”

 

ff_1708_300_1.jpg

Jolene Elizabeth Giandomenico, administrator at 1708 Gallery, says the Art Walk brings between 2,000 and 5,000 people to the popular gallery every month.

That's a far cry from the event's humble beginnings, when getting phone calls returned from city officials was nearly impossible. During First Fridays' eight-year run, the city has coughed up a total of about $4,000 in financial support from the economic development department, says Christina Newton, director of Curated Culture, the nonprofit that organizes and promotes the Art Walk.

“It's extremely frustrating,” Newton says, explaining that every budget cycle she lobbies City Council for more support -- to no avail. “I go through my plea, my funding plea, and there is always something else that needs to be funded first. I'm used to that.”

In the early days Newton ran repeatedly into closed doors. She recalls approaching the Metropolitan Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau to ask for financial support for a shuttle that would take visitors to the Broad Street galleries, along with several city museums -- such as the Black History Museum and the Valentine Richmond History Center -- and getting nowhere. (GRTC wound up donating a shuttle for two years, but it's since been discontinued.)

To help get the event off the ground in 2001, Newton was able to secure about $45,000 from Jim Ukrop, chairman of First Market Bank, in the first few years. Ukrop was the event's first major financial donor, and has long been a supporter of the event. He also owns Quirk Gallery's building.

Katie Ukrop, who is married to Jim Ukrop's son, Ted, recalls her father-in-law encouraging her and her husband to check out this quirky little Arts Walk when it first started. She and Ted, along with Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center, at first were taken aback when they walked by Ukrop's building and saw artists wearing see-through negligees, drinking red wine. “We were out enjoying Jim's wacky thing to do,” Katie Ukrop says, recalling how her father-in-law had no idea there were nearly naked women on display in his building.

Jim Ukrop's memory of the incident is fuzzy, but he's indifferent nonetheless. “It's become more mainstream as time went on,” he says. “It's very organic.”

 

 

ff_christina_newton_500_0.jpg

Christina Newton, director of Curated Culture, the nonprofit that manages and promotes First Fridays, has been holding the event together for eight years on a shoestring budget. Getting financial support from the city, however, has been nearly impossible.

 

THE financial struggles of the Art Walk, however, persist. And that often leads to strained relationships. Newton says she receives $48,000 a year to put on the event. The group receives $25,000 in sponsorship money from the University of Richmond, $15,000 from Venture Richmond, $3,000 from CenterStage, the performing arts center, and $5,000 in annual fees from participating galleries, restaurants and business owners in the district. Individual donations and vendor fees are expected to bring total revenues of $51,000 by the end of the season in August 2010.

Operating on a shoestring, however, isn't easy.

For example, Comfort, the first of the new restaurants to open on Broad in 2003, stopped paying the annual $200 fee to be an official participating member of the Art Walk several years ago. “When Comfort opened it was like a hallelujah moment,” Newton says. The restaurant, in the 200 block of West Broad, has helped validate the area as a dining destination, and paved the way for other restaurants to follow suit.

Jason Alley, the restaurant's chef and co-owner, says First Fridays certainly helps with exposure, but the event doesn't necessarily spike his business. Sightseers don't typically stay for dinner, he says, and the often-younger crowds who come in for drinks and appetizers can crowd out regular diners.

Still, “whether or not we feel a direct impact on Friday night is inconsequential,” Alley says of First Fridays. “I think it's great for the neighborhood. It looks like a real city out here, people are out walking.”

Comfort's decision to stop ponying up the fee -- only a few in the district have stopped paying -- doesn't sit well with Newton. “It's not really neighborly. It makes some businesses upset at their neighbors when one doesn't participate,” she says. “We have to charge something because it's really the only way we can survive.”

The economic benefits of the Art Walk are difficult to measure. There's been no official study of the event's economic impact, and the city doesn't provide sales-tax data for the blocks that encompass the event. While there's no doubt it's bringing people back downtown, and reacquainting many with Broad Street, it's yet to truly impact many of the existing businesses in the corridor.

“It doesn't help me and it doesn't hurt me,” John Goodman, president of Friedman's Loan Office at 118 E. Broad St., says of First Fridays. It's simple demographics: Goodman's pawn shop customers don't fit the profile of Art Walk participants, and his shop caters to daytime foot traffic along Broad.

In late December, his shop is one of the only stores open in his block. “People call and say, ‘What are you near?' And, you know, there's nothing,” he says. “In my area, it sucks that I'm the only store.”

Harvey's Progressive Barber Shop at 100 E. Broad St. is packed on a recent weekday, but the customers here aren't likely to frequent the art galleries when they leave. “It sure doesn't help our business,” Joe Johnson, a barber at the shop, says of the arts revival. But, he acknowledges, “It's looking more safe when we go out to our cars at night because the police are patrolling it.”

Developers, including Washington, D.C., real estate magnate Douglas Jemal, are converting many of the old storefronts, including the former Standard Drug, into condos and apartments, and construction has recently picked up after a long real estate lull, Goodman says. Gentrification is on the horizon, and that means many of the existing businesses -- the pawn shops and the beauty supply stores that cater to a decidedly inner-city clientele -- eventually could find themselves priced out.

This gentrification poses a social dilemma, says Janine Bell, president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society. How does the city maintain a racial balance and cater to the existing black businesses while encouraging the success of the Art Walk, an event involving mostly white gallery owners and businesses?

“I don't know that the gallery owners talk to the barber shop owners,” says Bell, who's a participant in First Fridays. “I don't know that there's a lot of communication across racial lines.

“When gentrification is left to its own devices, that's never good.”

The evidence is in the ragweeds that protrude from the median in front of Bell's gallery and cultural center at 101 E. Broad St. Goodman, with Friedman's pawn shop, sees it as well. The city largely has ignored the area after the demise of 6th Street Marketplace and the death of Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers. “They used to do a nice job in the median with Christmas decorations,” Goodman says, adding that it's been more than 10 years since the lights went up.

The gallery owners, many of them cash-strapped and struggling already, are already feeling the pinch of rising real estate costs. The coming gentrification could force the artists out of the neighborhood, as well.

Anne Hart Chay, owner of the Visual Art Studio, says escalating real estate bills -- her building and parking lot are now assessed at $510,000 -- and other expenses are outpacing her income. She's been on Broad longer than most -- she opened her first gallery in 6th Street Marketplace in 1990 after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University and taught painting and photography classes in the glass-enclosed crosswalk over Broad.

Now, she's not sure how she'll survive.

“The gallery can't even pay its portion of the taxes,” she says. “I would just like to see a way for it to continue to grow and the city to support us. If I sell my gallery and my space here, where is my gallery going to go?”

 

ff_cop_300.jpg

Ray Gargiulo, a neighborhood assistance officer, helps direct traffic during the Dec. 4 First Fridays Art Walk, which drew about 4,000 people to Broad Street.

Police presence is also sparse during the week. But once a month, when the Art Walk participants fill the sidewalks, there's a show of force. At the Dec. 4 First Fridays, there are at least a dozen police officers patrolling Broad.

Maintaining that balance, ensuring that gentrification doesn't push out the businesses that long have been ignored by civic boosters and City Hall, perhaps is the biggest challenge going forward. Flynn, the city's director of community development, says the issue is on the radar of city planners.

“We don't want it to be accessible only to those who can afford it,” Flynn says, explaining that the city is considering extending its affording housing ordinance to Broad Street, which offers incentives to developers for including low- to moderate-income housing. The area is also in an enterprise zone, and there are programs that offer low-interest loans to businesses, she says, something that the city is working to market and make sure existing entrepreneurs take advantage of.

But some manner of gentrification is simply inevitable. Flynn points out that economic renewal can't take place when rents remain low. “If you really want to see a successful area, it's going to be more expensive,” she says. “The basics of economics is supply and demand. You have to mindful of that, too.”

 

THAT the city administration is addressing such issues may be the best sign yet that the area has a chance of progressing without flushing out the old. And no one is denying, not the barbers, pawn shop owners and beauty-supply-store owners, that First Fridays is injecting new life into the corridor.

No one deserves more credit for holding it all together than Newton, who stands at the center of First Fridays and works to keep all the parts moving. There's already talk of adding a day, toward the end of the month, to expand the event. While the internal conflicts can be tiresome and stressful, Newton realizes it's a necessary evil.

“There's been multiple times, there's just too many times that I wanted to do something else,” she says, but “thankfully, the program has all individual passion and enthusiasm. It's mainly for the good of the community.”

 

ff_katie_ukrop_300.jpg

Katie Ukrop, owner of Quirk Gallery, serves as a hostess to a packed showing during First Fridays. Quirk, which opened in 2005, has become one of the marquee venues of the popular monthly event.

Even the recent CAPS debacle isn't such a bad thing, Flynn says. It put First Fridays front and center at City Hall, opening eyes to the new reality that Broad Street has the potential to regain some of its past glory. Top city officials got to hear from the gallery owners themselves, and it started some new conversations about the city's role in helping First Fridays expand into something greater.

“It did bring it to people's attentions,” she says of the code-enforcement crackdown earlier this year. “What is the city administration's role in all of this? How can they have a hand in all that? It got on everyone's radar screen in a new way, and that's a good thing.”

While working with the city can be exhaustively frustrating, Newton says she keeps going because of the event's great potential. An art history major at VCU in the late 1980s, she knew it would work, even in 2000, after visiting other cities such as San Antonio and seeing how similar arts festivals helped revive other downtowns — especially with Richmond's much more established arts community.

“I go through extreme love-hate relationship with [Richmond],” Newton says, adding that running the event has been a financial hardship on her family as well. “As frustrated as I get, there are just so many possibilities. The thought of what could happen helps keep me going.”

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment
 

Add a comment