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Critically Acclaimed

Why did art philosopher Donald Kuspit call Richmond's art scene a breath of fresh air? Just ask the nonprofit galleries.


That Richmond should provide one of the most respected art critics in the world solace from the capital of art, testifies — as does Kuspit's visit itself — to an exciting fact: Richmond is becoming an art town to reckon with.

In a way this shouldn't be surprising. Home to a world-class art museum and an art school that creeps higher every year in national rankings, Richmond also boasts an impressive array of art galleries. These range from hallowed institutions like Reynolds Gallery, 1708, the Hand Workshop, Main Art, Artspace and the Anderson Gallery, to nervy newcomers like Orange Door and Three Mile Gallery. These spaces are profoundly important to the art scene because they provide the showrooms — explored by patrons each month in a ritual of evening art openings called First Friday — for the region's most interesting art.

When asked about their city and its art scene, the men and women who run these galleries shine with something resembling a missionary glow. "Richmond is a rad little city," exults Jennifer Bridges, gallery administrator at Artspace. "The community turns out to these First Friday events, rain or snow!" Founded in 1988, Artspace showcased a remarkable 30 shows last year in the roomy, two-level building it occupies at 6 E. Broad St. Like most galleries that feature serious and innovative art, Artspace has 501C3 or "nonprofit" status, which means that — unlike commercial galleries — it is not in the business to make money. It's in the business to show art.

"Commercial galleries don't seem to be interested in art that doesn't match your living room sofa," says Bridges, an art historian who assumed leadership at Artspace last year. Being nonprofit allows Artspace to regularly display diverse work by an eclectic range of established and unknown artists. So, for example, a highlight of last year's season was an exhibit of long-celebrated local printmakers like David Freed and Barbara Tisserat, while an energetic show in February featured a group of local artists so young that some are still VCU undergraduates. This unpredictability keeps Artspace exciting, and Bridges hopes its model will inspire others. She urges galleries not to overlook the many nonartists who can help them, citing "up and coming museum professionals" as an untapped resource. "These people study curating and museum or gallery direction for long hours — they could offer a lot to artists trying to organize a gallery space who don't know where to start."

Perhaps they might also assist artists — a class of people not famous for their business acumen — with the financial troubles that plague most nonprofits. Artspace survives almost entirely on donations and grants, and Bridges wants the public to know this makes for a tense juggling act to stay financially afloat while maintaining artistic integrity. "If you enjoy the art scene in Richmond, please help the little guys like Artspace however you can," she pleads. "It's hard to remain focused on your agenda when you're worried if you can keep your doors open regularly."

But money needn't always corrupt a gallery — just ask Bev Reynolds. "We are a self-sustaining business," she says of the eponymous, commercial gallery she founded 25 years ago, "but our mission is still to show new and innovative work by the best regional and national artists we can." Recent exhibits at Reynolds Gallery, located at 1514 W. Main St., have showcased works by regional artists — some with national reputations. These range from Sally Mann and Tara Donovan to Javier Tapia and Sally Bowring; and "Fictions in Wonderland," a show that included a work by Donovan, received a glowing review in The Washington Post — a true coup for a gallery in a city the size of Richmond.

Reynolds recently expanded her gallery from 2,200 to 4,400 square feet. This is clear evidence that business is good, but she dismisses with irritation any intimations of Easy Street. "It takes a tremendous amount of hard work to do what we do. Certainly no one gets into this business to become a wealthy person." Her idealism and enthusiasm give the lie to any mercenary suspicions one might have about this very nonprofitlike commercial gallery. "I encourage people to get involved in the visual arts" she says, "because I really think it changes people's lives."

Peter Calvert would agree. The director of 1708 Gallery, Richmond's most celebrated nonprofit space, located at 319 W. Broad St., is effusive about the spiritual value of art and the local community's commitment to it. "I really believe that there's something in everyone's soul that needs art," he says, "and Richmonders are willing to go out and feed that part of their soul."

Founded 25 years ago by a group of six local artists, 1708 began its life as a cutting-edge venue for work that couldn't be seen elsewhere in the region. Inevitably, it is now a local institution: a situation made clear by the fact that two of its strongest exhibits in 2002 were major retrospectives of Milo Russell and Richard Carlyon who are themselves local institutions. Both shows attracted rare attention from local media and were well attended. The opening of the Carlyon exhibit was so packed it was impossible to see the art.

Calvert concedes that the challenge for 1708 is to stay vital and fresh. "If Chuck Berry gets up and plays 'Maybeline' at age seventy and does his duck walk everyone is going to be happy," he says, "but in the visual art world, it's What have you done for me lately?" As a result, 1708 walks a tight rope between old and new, accessible and obscure.

Each of these directors wants to see the city's art profile increase at the national level, but each also hopes for a growing awareness among Richmonders of just how special the art scene is, a sense of why someone like Donald Kuspit would find it refreshing. "I would love to see increased community involvement," says Reynolds. "For me, Richmond is a visual-arts city that hasn't been given the acclaim it deserves for the caliber of work being made here. What other city this size has anything like it? Charlotte? It doesn't come close. Not even Washington has what we've got." S

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