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Reeling Them In

After years of instability, the Arts Council is reemerging as a premier advocacy group under former VCU dean John Bryan.


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To understand John Bryan's approach to remaking the Arts Council, it helps to understand how he fishes.

Bryan, 59, has buddies who will sidle up to a pond, plant their folding chair in arm's reach of the cooler, drop a line and wait.

“I get to the water. I start casting, looking around, change the lure, change the speed until I crack the code and figure out the best way to catch the biggest fish that day,” says Bryan, sitting in his Scott's Addition office in front of a wall full of paintings and photographs. One poster shows a man standing in front of a sculpture with his back to the camera, holding open his trench coat over the words “Expose Yourself to Art” — an uncharacteristically humorous indicator from a man who's hard to make laugh.

He likes the game, the strategic aspect. He'll fish whatever water is convenient and can locate the nearest spot the way some people can direct you to the closest cash machine. If he has a meeting downtown, and a 20-minute window before his next appointment on the other side of the river, he'll spend that time angling midday in a tie and loafers. Fifteen years ago he published “Urban Bassing in Richmond,” a guide to two-dozen city fishing holes while he was still arts development dean at Virginia Commonwealth University. He left the university in 2002 to head the American Sportfishing Association in Alexandria then came back to Richmond in 2006 and consulted for a year, then took a position with the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond for a year. In September he came to the Arts Council.

Since taking over, he's launched efforts to reposition the group, which acts as something of a fundraising umbrella for local arts and culture organizations. Instead of local museums and arts organizations individually asking local corporations and government entities for donations, the Arts Council raises the money and redistributes the funds to the participating organizations.

In the three years immediately prior to Bryan's arrival, the 58-year-old group's mission had been to redefine its mission. Donations had fallen off and the formulas used to distribute what money there was hadn't evolved with the cultural landscape.

Meanwhile, the CenterStage downtown performing arts center and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have been running massive fundraising campaigns to collect money for their new facilities — thrusting even more fingers into the funding pie. That, coupled with the economic meltdown that started in the fall, limited the pie even further. Bryan's had his work cut out for him. 

Shortly after taking over, Bryan began working to take the group from a body that helps a dozen or so museums, theaters and galleries, to one with a more ecumenical reach. He's kicking off a monthly luncheon with bloggers to help spread the word. He's initiated a year-long series of summits with African-American churches to learn more about the cultural offerings represented in their choirs, dance groups and historical committees. As a way to streamline the process for schools interested in contracting with artists, museums and theater groups, he's set about compiling a catalog of what kind of educational programming the organizations offer for each grade.

Those last two initiatives came, in part, as recommendations from the Richmond Regional Cultural Action Plan.

The plan, commissioned by a coalition of local cultural groups and museums and released in March, provides a road map for realignment. Privately, its organizers had suspected that among the study's recommendations would be a directive to dismantle the Arts Council, which many people saw as outdated and leaderless. But that was before Bryan came back to town.

Between his 20-year run as a development dean at VCU's art school and returning to head the Arts Council, Bryan spent time with the fishing nonprofit based in Washington. There, he lured 50 prominent writers into submitting essays on fishing which he compiled into a book. (Bryan himself has written about fishing for Sports Illustrated and Field and Stream.) Former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines wrote the introduction. President Jimmy Carter wrote the foreward. Nonfiction superstar John McPhee and humorist Dave Barry both contributed to the book. None of the authors got paid; all of the money went for wildlife conservation and education.

Bryan has undertaken a similar project rebuilding the leadership boards of the Arts Council. There used to be four boards, each working on pieces of the mission. At its April 16 meeting, Bryan officially dissolved the boards and announced plans to reconstitute a single governing body by Sept. 1. The Arts Council also officially changed its name to “CultureWorks — Richmond Region's Champion for the Cultural Arts.”

He'll have to get back to the old-fashioned way he raised money as a development dean at VCU. The ArtsFund, the former Arts Council's corporate fundraising wing, had averaged about half a million dollars in donations during the past several years. This year it's projected to pull in less than $100,000, but Bryan remains optimistic. He sees the Cultural Action Plan as having achieved a rare alignment of movers and shakers all focused on the survival of the sector he's championing.

“It's provided a coalition of influential people who all want things to move forward for the good of the cultural arts in this community,” Bryan says. “We've got to crack the code on that, too.” S


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