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Brad Armstrong spreads the gospel of Richmond's proposed performing arts

He's a Believer


In July, Brad Armstrong stepped down as one of the eight partners at the Martin Agency to become the first president and chief executive officer of the new Virginia Performing Arts Foundation. The Foundation was formed early this year chiefly to raise the $90 million to $100 million that will be needed to build a proposed performing arts complex in downtown Richmond.

The plan provides for a new $50 million performing arts center where the former Thalhimer's building stands, as well as renovations to the Landmark Theater, Theatre IV's Empire Theatre and the National Theater. Once the project is completed — the complex is slated to open in 2006 — the foundation will manage and maintain the facilities.

So far, $8 million has been raised for the project. The city has contributed $2 million and the state $1 million for the purchase of the Thalhimer's building, now in the hands of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which is studying its demolition. And the Carpenter Center has raised $5 million for improvements to its facility, which will be a part of the new complex.

Armstrong, who headed the Martin Agency's account management group for eight years, previously worked in sales and marketing for Eskimo Pie, ran public-relations firm Earle Palmer Brown's Virginia operations and worked in marketing for A.H. Robins.

Four years ago, Armstrong, the former board president of the Arts Council of Richmond, was instrumental in helping to bring together Richmond's major performing arts organizations to develop a master plan for performing arts facilities in Richmond.

Today, he has bet his career that these new facilities can be made a reality.

Style recently spoke to Armstrong about the challenges that lie ahead.

Style: Do you have any previous fund-raising experience?

Armstrong: Very little. I have done some fund-raising for nonprofits when I was on their boards, but I have never, ever worked as a CEO for a nonprofit that had fund raising as its main order of business.

We will add a really good fund-raiser to our staff in November so this foundation will not depend on my weak fundraising skills. But when you really believe in something, it is easy to ask people to support it. … I have learned that in my experience with different nonprofits over the years. …

The most important thing I will do will be to keep up momentum, energy and spirit. This project is a big deal. It will have a huge economic impact on the state. It is stunning how much it will help our quality of life.

What is the biggest challenge you face in getting this project off the ground?

Making sure that we have believers who believe that our city can be reborn at its core. Several things have been tried over the years — 6th Street Marketplace, Valentine Riverside. Those things haven't been successful, and the reason is that they did not offer a proven experience that people couldn't get in the suburbs. Downtown shopping is not going to get people downtown if they can buy the same things in the suburban malls … But world-class performing arts will get people to come downtown. … Without that understanding, I see skeptics. We have just got to keep telling the story so we can turn the skeptics into believers.

Most people will say the biggest challenge is raising the money. But I believe, perhaps naively so, that if we have enough believers the money will happen.

How does the recent announcement of the demolition of 6th Street Marketplace and construction of a hotel and shops on the site of the former Miller & Rhoads affect plans for the Virginia Performing Arts Complex?

The two projects go hand in glove. We have been working together all along. Gary Beller, the developer [of the hotel], has been working closely with Richmond Renaissance and the Performing Arts Foundation. … We love his plan and he loves our plan. He would be less interested if [the Thalhimer's building] was going to remain an empty department store.

This is a great time in the city. The fact that City Council voted eight to nothing on his plan was important.

Who do you plan to approach for funding for the Virginia Performing Arts Complex?

It is clear that in every other state where the capital city has built a performing arts facility that the state has been a major player. There are also a number of national foundations that support efforts like this. There are individuals outside the city that we will approach for help, and corporations that have operations in Richmond that we will ask for help as well. This will be the Commonwealth of Virginia's art center.

How will the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon affect your fundraising efforts?

We have no idea.

We are all so terribly sad about what happened on 9-11. There are some people who say that the events will cause people to rethink what is important to them and will be even more generous when it comes to supporting things that improve the quality of life in their community. But if the economy continues to be flat that will affect state contributions, and if the stock market continues to decline that will affect corporate giving and private giving. The leadership should be looking to things that will stimulate the economy. This kind of project is a demonstrated economic driver. The city needs it; the convention center needs it. …

Usually, when I talk to people, I say 'This is important work.' For a while, it was hard to say it was important in light of what happened on 9-11. But then I realized — this is important work. It is important for our community. We have been asked by our president and other leaders to go back and rebuild our community. As we all think about what we can do to help the quality of life where we live … this plan is exactly the right thing for this

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