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Moving Forward

With the Fast/Forward series gone, where can Richmonders go to see challenging multigenre art?

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When series curator Margo Crutchfield left her position for another job two summers ago, fellow curator John Ravenal, with the help of two colleagues, tried to assume her responsibilities. But after a season they found the work overloading their already packed schedules. A curator needed to be assigned specifically for the program, but a hiring freeze made filling the position impossible. The series was ultimately let go. "I don't know a single person at the museum who wasn't disappointed," explains Ravenal. "It was a very painful decision."

Ravenal doesn't believe Fast/Forward has been eliminated permanently. "Everyone at the museum sees the value of live, progressive performance. ... The belief in the series is here. The issue is one of sound fiscal health."

While few in the commonwealth haven't been affected by cuts of one sort or another, the question that arises, be it cuts targeted at the arts, education or transportation, is: What is the impact of the reduction? Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University and author of "The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life," has done extensive research linking the arts to a region's prosperity. Florida writes, "The key to economic growth lies not just in the ability to attract the creative class, but to translate that underlying advantage into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech businesses and regional growth."

Having studied hundreds of cities across the country, he developed several indices to measure the creative ranking of a city and the people in the creative class. A key element that attracts the creative class, essentially creative thinkers, everyone from artists to engineers to entrepreneurs, is the number of offerings in the arts, particularly progressive work (part of his Bohemian Index), which reveals a city's degree of tolerance of diversity. Unfortunately, Richmond ranks fairly low even before budget reductions.

Local musician and performer Jim Thompson points a finger at city officials who make it difficult, if not impossible, to open and maintain small and midsize establishments that promote alternative performance. "Artists are constantly butting heads with regulations and laws. ... If the city made it easier, people would rise to the occasion."

Although some are already threatened, a few spaces have stepped forth within the last year. Egg Space, Three Miles, Chop Suey Books, Orange Door and the TuM feature live shows that include puppetry, music, poetry, dance, video.

"This city is bubbling over with artists and performers," says Ed Trask, artist and co-founder of Egg Space. "There's a renaissance happening in this city. We wanted to open a space for the kind of work that isn't getting recognized in Richmond."

Jimmy Ghaphery, musician and cofounder of NEKID, a varying group of solo performances, which held two shows at the TuM, wants to see work that goes beyond predictability, and reveals risk and adventure. "I'm there to be not only surprised but to see the performers challenge and surprise themselves."

Much of the work at TuM and these other venues is not the type of art that appeals to a broad audience. Much of it challenges expectations, definitions and easy comprehension. But it's those very struggles that make this type of art so important in moving the mind out of its usual lazy, sclerotic ways toward thinking that wiggles and perches outside the box, a type of thinking with applications to the arts, sciences and business. Thompson looks for work that "opens new avenues in your head, that plants a seed to change your perspective."

The loss of the reputable Fast/Forward is a huge one to the city. Painter Amie Oliver mourns its disappearance. "It reflected the nature of Richmond that we love best — that part that embraces the arts, culture and the ideas of the world." With this gem gone indefinitely, the arts community in concert with the city must take up the slack. With two new malls planned for the region and recent approval given to the development of Brown's Island, we cannot forget the contribution that artists give to the city, ensuring it not only maintains heart and soul, but a distinctive and inspiring identity. S

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