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Canvassing the Neighborhood

With Richmond CenterStage and a project to fill vacant buildings with art, First Fridays hits a new level.

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Hopes are high that the June 1 First Fridays Artwalk will mark a milestone in the revitalization of downtown Richmond. Now a year-round event, the Artwalk will be accompanied by groundbreaking festivities for the new Richmond CenterStage performing arts complex at the corner of East Broad and Sixth streets.

It is expected to be the largest Artwalk since the event began in 2001, with a brass band leading the way from the CenterStage site to the participating galleries, shops and restaurants. For the street entertainment, the main stage area will feature musical performances. And linking venues along Broad Street's gallery row, a reminder that there is still a lot of work to do, will be art installations that are part of the "Vacant Spaces = Artful Places" project.

"Vacant Spaces = Artful Places" aims to breathe new life into downtown Richmond by beautifying the storefronts of 59 long-vacant buildings along the Broad Street corridor between Henry and Third streets. Empty storefront windows and walls are being cleaned up and converted into exhibit space for art. Local real estate developer Tom Robinson says the project aims to draw attention to the "dead space" represented by the vacant, often dilapidated buildings.

Why has art been identified as the catalyst for revitalization? Because art often elicits emotional response, provides delight, provokes thought and brings people together.

"'Vacant Spaces' will create a wonderful sense of place and enhance the sociability of the corridor, making it compatible with the neighborhood and the culture," says Kathy Emerson, director of Quirk Gallery. Emerson is one of many gallerists participating in the project. She'll install art in several windows, including photographs by 3-year-old Abel Bayakenov Wiley (profiled in an April 11 Style story), who was adopted from Kazakhstan and now lives in Church Hill.

Key to this project is art's capacity to draw attention — in this case, to the vacant buildings that could be renovated and put to new use. The first completed window display, located at 107 E. Broad St., inspired a Boston couple visiting Richmond recently to purchase $3,500 in artwork. It also drew the attention of a prospective buyer who is now negotiating a price for the building.

"Vacant Spaces = Artful Places" will be in full bloom for July's Artwalk, with the June 1 preview of the project intended to coincide with the Richmond CenterStage groundbreaking. Both projects are driven by the quest for revitalization.

Richmond CenterStage is scheduled to open in 2009, providing three state-of-the-art venues that will attract nationally known artists and host local talent. The project will include major renovation of the Carpenter Center and construction of a new community playhouse, a performance hall and an arts education center on East Grace, between Sixth and Seventh streets. "Vacant Spaces = Artful Places" seeks to up that reward by tempting creative entrepreneurs to fill in the gaps. S

Richmond CenterStage's First Friday groundbreaking is June 1 at 5:30 p.m., followed by the Artwalk starting at 7 p.m. Call 327-5755 or visit www.richmondcenterstage.com.

Artists interested in contributing work to "Vacant Spaces = Artful Places" and others interested in supporting the project should contact Amanda Robinson at Gallery5, 644-0005.


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