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Extraordinary Jo

In the wake of accomplishment, the president of the Visual Arts Center takes her final bow.

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Anticipating retirement from her position of the last 10 years as president and chief executive of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, Jo Kennedy has started taking painting classes — for the first time.

“I would love to take every class here,” she says, “but I just didn't have the time to do it when I was working here.”

During her decade-long tenure, Kennedy has kept busy. She transfigured the place, changing its name from the ambiguous Hand Workshop to the less confusing Visual Arts Center of Richmond, raised $6.3 million to buy and renovate the building the center had been renting on West Main Street for nearly 20 years, and vastly increased the scope and number of the center's class offerings.

Since her hiring, “we have grown our assets tremendously,” Kennedy says. “In 2000, we had less than $3,000 in assets. We owned nothing, and now we have over $5 million in assets.”

Kennedy's final day at the arts center is June 30. A national search that began in January for her successor has been extended and is ongoing, she says, because the search committee has yet to find a suitable replacement. In the meantime, Randy Wyckoff, former executive director of the Children's Museum of Richmond and former interim director of the School of Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, has been named the center's interim director.

“Her tenure has just been truly, truly transformational for the organization,” Visual Arts Center advisory council member Marcia Thalhimer says. “She always talks about the creative spirit and that's what this organization exudes and so does Jo herself. … Jo has been a really strong community leader in the arts.”

Richmonders may be surprised to learn that Kennedy, 65, has no background in the visual arts. A Virginia Commonwealth University alum whose passion was poetry and creative writing, she started out in the 1970s as an English teacher. She taught at Hanover's Patrick Henry High School, Richmond's Thomas Jefferson High and Virginia Commonwealth University. She eventually found her way to Dominion Resources, where she worked in public relations and graphics services for 15 years. By the late 1990s she was semiretired, teaching English part-time at VCU and the University of Richmond.

That was when her former boss at Dominion, Marjorie Greer, then a Hand Workshop board member, called to encourage Kennedy to apply for the newly vacant job to head up the center. The board loved her, but Kennedy wasn't sure she wanted a full-time gig. Instead she agreed to work as the arts center's interim director until a replacement could be found. But “after about two weeks I was totally hooked on this place,” she says.

Ten years later, Kennedy says, “it's been a wonderful journey.”

A breast cancer survivor when she was hired, Kennedy says she decided to take the job because she “wanted to do something that mattered. And when I got here, I realized that there was a lot here that mattered, and that there were so many people who came here whose lives were really enriched and in some ways transformed by doing art and experiencing art.”

One of Kennedy's first accomplishments was to raise $1 million to buy the building that the center had leased at a high price for 17 years.

She had to build a donor base from scratch, and in a tough, post-9/11 fundraising environment. Her fundraising strategy included recruiting more corporate citizens to serve on the center's board of directors. “I've realized it's more about friend-raising than it is about fundraising,” she says, “that the funds will come if you build friends for the organization, and you build friends by offering programs that the community wants and by reaching out to as many different communities as you can. It's a very intentional process. It doesn't happen overnight.”

Kennedy “charmed and bullied the board” into actively pursuing the fundraising campaign, Greer says, and Kennedy led by example, making a sizeable multiyear donation from her own salary. “She's a strategic thinker but she's mastered the art of gentle persuasion too,” Greer says. “She is a wonderful visionary but she's also just got good practical common sense and it's been the perfect combination for the Visual Arts Center.”

Kennedy went on to raise more than $6.3 million, which paid for an extensive renovation and expansion of the arts center, including its True F. Luck Gallery, which was brought up to modern exhibit standards, with climate controls. Prior to the renovation, shows such as a recent exhibition by internationally lauded Richmond art duo Robin Kranitsky and Kim Overstreet, could not have been held there.

The center's offerings have more than doubled under Kennedy, swelling to 425 art classes a year in such wide-ranging genres as painting, pottery, fiber arts and glassmaking. She instituted free after-school classes for inner-city Richmond schoolchildren and a free Saturday intergenerational art program for grandparents and grandchildren and Big Brothers and Big Sisters members. This fall, the center is starting a new program called Creativity at Work, which will pair artists with business leaders in an effort to encourage creative thinking in corporate problem solving.

Perhaps the biggest change during Kennedy's tenure, however, was to change the name of the Hand Workshop, which was founded in 1963 by Richmond heiress and historic preservationist Elisabeth Scott Bocock. Kennedy found that potential donors often were confused by the Hand Workshop name and had difficulty recalling what it was. (Was it a surgical center for hands?) After much disagreement from people who disliked the change, it became the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in 2005.

Following her accomplishments, Kennedy looks forward to a quieter life. Divorced with two grown sons, her first grandchild is on the way. She says that “my plan is not to have a plan, to get up each day and create my day,” but old habits die hard for workaholics, and even recreation can become a vocation of sorts when one has a long retirement bucket list.
 
“I have a lot of things I want to do … traveling, taking art classes, getting back to poetry writing, yoga, taking piano lessons. I've already signed up for rowing classes on the James,” Kennedy says. “There are a lot of things I'm interested in exploring. I am truly retiring and doing the things I want to do. I'm delighted to be at this stage of my life."

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