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Call to Arts

All this new Regional Cultural Action Plan needs is what all of those other plans required: a dose of public will and some regional cooperation.

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The key components of a new and ambitious study on Richmond's arts and culture were released to news media last week. And, so far, this Regional Cultural Action Plan has failed to garner much audience interest. Instead of the future of the Richmond Symphony, or a discussion on the popularity of the local theater scene, the blogosphere is awash in other cultural discussions over issues such as a possible Shockoe baseball stadium or whether the contemporary rock venue Toad's Place will ever reopen.

Clearly, relevance is one of the challenges before the region's premier arts organizations.

But this new study, a 111-page document facilitated by the California-based consulting firm WolfBrown, is worthy of attention. The most revolutionary aspect of the plan is that it was produced by the arts community itself — not a sector known for speaking out, especially with a shared sense of self. And the plan is the product of more than a year of independent research, community meetings and interviews. (Full disclosure: I was one of the individuals queried by WolfBrown).
Incorporating the performing and visual arts, the paper comes to the defense of Richmond's cultural assets — including such institutions as the Richmond Ballet, the Triangle Players and Gallery5. Clearly it's something of a necessary reintroduction. During a mayoral election forum that Style Weekly held last year, our now-Mayor Dwight Jones remarked that TheatreVirginia was his favorite local arts venture (never mind that TheatreVirginia closed down in 2002).
Clearly, he — along with politicians in the counties — needs a refresher course in the arts. Here, in this report, is a persuasive argument that the area's cultural offerings are an underutilized economic resource — the consultants estimate $300 million, which might even be too little.

The plan is also a diagnosis, a series of prescriptions for how the area's artists and artistic entities can address issues related to declining dollars, dysfunctional leadership, a complex and unequal funding bureaucracy and fractured promotion. And how rare for a report like this: It even admits that it's imperfect (page 85, recommendation VI.1, Goal VI).

No, the arts community didn't need a $100,000 policy paper to tell it that the Arts Council of Richmond was ineffective and needed reorganization. … or that there was a need for an all-purpose Web site to market the region's cultural offerings … or that music festivals were popular around here … or that area institutions should share services and collaborate in order to save money and pool resources. But all of that is now nicely confirmed in print, along with a well-worded statement that government and private sector groups “should be hearing the perspectives of the cultural sector more than they do.”

Amen. Like most paid consultant surveys, WolfBrown's report deals in generalities when specifics would be more helpful. The plan dances around the 2,000-pound gorilla in the room, CenterStage, an arts project overseen by the corporate elite that enjoys a disproportionate amount of city funding while smaller arts groups go lacking. And while the plan acknowledges the award-winning cultural offerings available to area children through Richmond's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities (as well as counterpart programs in the counties), it never adequately spells out how these municipal offerings — mostly utilized by African-Americans — could effectively join efforts by the larger arts organizations to start an arts education component through area schools. In short: Are we setting up separate but unequal arts education programs here, and will Richmond be asked to fund both?

In other places, the report is clear about cultural inequity: “Communities of color have often received lower priority. In the cultural sector this has translated to fewer arts and cultural learning opportunities, less funding, and inadequate benefit from government policy. The budgets of key African-American institutions in the cultural sector lag well behind those of more established white institutions. Leadership positions in the cultural sector are short of people of color.”

This new plan often shows teeth and vision. While it ignores Richmond's high meals tax, the proposal calls for an end to the city's crippling admissions tax — hello Toad's Place! It seeks a fresh new approach to grant funding, so that smaller — and often more vital — organizations and programs can share in a limited pool of available public and private arts dollars — hello First Fridays Artwalk! And it proposes that cultural leaders “designate a spokesperson to represent the arts in important discussions about economic development, as well as local and regional planning” — hello, everybody!

If the proposal hits a bum note, it's with a separate section of statistics, gleaned from a survey distributed last year, that reveals little of substance about the full scope of cultural participation in metro Richmond. The sampling data reflects mostly older participants — there was little circulation of WolfBrown's questionnaire to area universities and colleges — and it lumps pop culture and high culture, visual and performing arts and museums into one designation called “the arts.”

Even with that, the plan distinguishes itself not only by identifying some obvious problems, but also by presenting a host of solutions and real-life examples from cities that successfully nurture their arts communities — Boston, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Providence, R.I., for instance. A running motif in the script is that Richmond has to change, has to redefine itself, and has to begin nurturing and promoting other parts of itself.

If that seems familiar, it's because we've heard it before. It's been the underlying message delivered through a myriad of paid consultant visits during the past six years — Richard Florida, Charles Landry, Rebecca Ryan and Jennifer James — and in outside reports, from the 2004 Young and the Restless survey of younger Richmonders to Jim Crupi's much-hyped 1993 and 2007 studies of area business leadership.

Now joining those previous calls to action is a step-by-step policy paper that seeks to reinvent the metro area as a place of arts and culture. And all this new Regional Cultural Action Plan needs is what all of those other plans required: a dose of public will and some regional cooperation. That and the passionate advocacy of area big-shots who know how to throw their civic weight around.

In this case, it would be nice to think that corporate leaders could support the entire rich fabric of the local arts community — from Church Hill's renovated Robinson Theater to the galleries on Broad to the dance studios at Pine Camp to edgy plays at the Firehouse — at least as much as they've supported a downtown arts center. S

Don Harrison is a Richmond-based freelance writer and the co-founder of
Saverichmond.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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