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Cultural Swarm

Richmond's arts and culture may reach critical mass, but it won't be by committee. It'll be because of us birds.



The birds had a long way to go. Who could blame them for not holding it in?

Richmond's first purple martin festival was held a few weeks ago, put together to honor the swallows that have added Richmond to their world tour while they wing their way to South America for the winter.

Thousands of the birds had taken up residence in the trees around the 17th Street Farmers' Market. Their masses had become such a sensation that some organizers staged Gone to the Birds, a June 26 festival characterized by raspberry sherbet, some defiled windshields and the predations of one enterprising, hungry hawk.

About a thousand humans turned out to observe some 5,000 purple martins in action. The event was a small but significant success for Richmond, culturally speaking.

But what's really wild is that the behavior that governs the flock of birds in flight is closely related to the behavior that governed the humans who organized the festival.

A dramatic cultural change is coming for Richmond in the next year. And there's a lesson in those purple martins. Applying the intelligence of birds in flight to questions of city growth may be the best way to keep Richmond evolving, windshields be damned.

Just stay with me here.

There's a year, give or take, before the launch of what can jauntily be called Culture 2.0 in Richmond.

The grand opening of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' $130 million expansion is set for fall 2009. Then there's the September '09 unveiling of Richmond CenterStage, that oft-delayed performing arts complex that grew from the ashes of the Carpenter Center. And a task force of local arts leaders has launched the development of the Richmond Regional Cultural Action Plan, an attempt to take an inventory of the region's cultural amenities to figure out how to “increase participation and financial support for arts and culture” — to define the artistic culture of Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover collectively. The task force hopes to have a plan by February 2009, when whatever decisions have been made will begin the long climb to life.

Local leaders consider this moment as an opportunity to reintroduce Richmond not only to its citizens, but also to the nation at large.

The new VMFA will have reason to puff itself up: one of the top 10 encyclopedic (meaning ancient to modern) art museums in the country, with a soaring glass atrium and the opportunity to bring more of its own art out of mothballs and into unique traveling exhibits. With any luck, we'll attract visitors from not only the Fan and Museum districts, but also as far away as Short Pump. The bigger goal, of course, is to pull in eyeballs from up and down the East Coast.

It's a gamble, but not one as big as CenterStage, which will need to find a programming niche between larger venues such as the Landmark Theater and Richmond Coliseum and smaller ones such as Toad's Place and the National. CenterStage will serve as home to the Richmond Symphony as well as smaller organizations such as the African American Repertory Theatre. The wrinkle is that its leadership board, the Richmond Performing Arts Center LLC (RPAC), is a private corporation run by some familiar names who aren't necessarily arts folks — Ukrop, Mooney, Armstrong and the like.

RPAC ultimately oversees programming for CenterStage as well as the Landmark. It's brought in SMG, an entertainment booking company based in Philadelphia, to handle both venues, in addition to the work SMG already performs for Richmond Coliseum and Charlottesville's John Paul Jones Arena.

To say that the 15-member RPAC board holds a lot of influence on Richmond's cultural programming, directly or indirectly, is a bit of an understatement. So while the potential of this abundance of new artistic space is exciting, there's a danger of homogenization. As we get closer to Culture 2.0, we could see a local version of what happened to radio under the reign of Clear Channel Radio. At least SMG, unlike Clear Channel, can't promise new rock and give us Nirvana, Sublime and other bands whose singers are 10 years dead. So our cultural vision may have a bit of a bottleneck.

As for the Cultural Action Plan, consultants from Boston's WolfBrown are guiding the process as they've done in Birmingham and Portland. Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center, serves as chair of the task force and sums up the questions the plan endeavors to answer: “What are the resources that we currently have? How do we promote them? How do we fund them?”

“How can we show the value of the arts and culture and history to the region,” Martin asks. “And how do we more effectively communicate between these organizations?”

Martin's a rare breed for Richmond — a healthy cynic who's also resolutely optimistic about the positive growth in the area in the last decade, including such wide-ranging successes as Manchester's arts boom, the renovated Visual Arts Center of Richmond and the expansion of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

He sees fall 2009 as an important part of that, and the Cultural Action Plan as a means of starting important conversations about who Richmond thinks it is, exactly.

He also knows that this city doesn't run as efficiently as a cultural machine as it could. “I think one of the end results [of the action plan] will be a rethinking of the structures that support arts and culture in the region,” he says. “The current structures are fairly complex. That's all I'm gonna say.”

He says a little more.

“If you wanted to support broadly the arts, arts and culture in Richmond … it would be hard for you to figure out how to do that,” Martin says. “It's about what's here. And we don't even know what's here.”

The Cultural Action Plan may very well get the region on the same page. Its task force plans to talk with local artists, conduct surveys and gather information about where the people are going, what they're spending money on. The great risk is that after all the surveys are interpreted, we'll have more of the same. This city has certainly seen some committees in its day. And ultimately culture doesn't come from committees. It can't be programmed so much as discovered and cultivated.

Look at Austin, Texas — it's the Live Music Capital of the World. But that's not because some civic-minded citizen drafted a plan to make it that way. It's because a bunch of musicians played there.

So the Cultural Action Plan has the right idea, and the right players — actual arts people such as Jo Kennedy (Visual Arts Center), Ana Ines King (Latin Ballet of Virginia), Phil Whiteway (Theatre IV/Barksdale) and Christina Newton (Curated Culture). With any luck they'll find some younger, new voices too. And if they do present an inventory of what the region has to offer, it's a good jumping-off point for discussion of who Richmond thinks it is.

But maybe there's a better model for encouraging the growth of culture here. Which brings us back to those purple martins.

Birds — like bees, ants and wildebeests — move together in great numbers because they're hiding a secret. Any one bird is a simple organism. But a flock in flight moves together as an orchestrated mass, one big animal. It's a superorganism made up of many — smarter as a swarm than as a single individual.

That's the basis for swarm theory, a way of looking at a group and finding the emergent intelligence. In beehives, nests, schools of fish, there's no leader. No individual ever sees the complete picture of how the group works. But when hunting for food or avoiding prey, there's a nearly instantaneous communication based on a few simple behavioral rules that individuals follow. It magnifies into a complex, higher-order intelligence. That's why an individual ant can be so simple, but a nest can be remarkably efficient and successful. If ants were run by committee, there'd be a lot fewer ants.

In general, swarm theory depends on the interaction of many individuals, the exploration of options and the selection of one of those options based on how many individuals move that way. For ants, it's all about pheromone trails and finding food. For birds moving in mass, it's about staying close, but not too close.

But how does this apply to people? In Peter Miller's “Swarm Theory,” published in National Geographic's July 2007 issue, he considers how people make tasks involving large numbers more efficient. How Southwest Airlines used the behavior of foraging ants to cut down the amount of waiting time the planes have at gates. How the collective intelligence of bettors at racetracks almost always know who the winner will be. How Wikipedia can be as massive and, more or less, as accurate as it is.

Cities follow these rules as they grow. If people are birds, Richmond is the flock. The purple martin festival itself followed some swarm rules: the birds came, individuals in the community — bird lovers, city organizers — threw out options on how to respond, and there you go — sherbet, crowds and dirty windshields. The festival was more organic than others in the city because a) the birds weren't planned for, and b) they were a limited-time offer. Long discussion wasn't an option. It was the result of individuals contributing their particular information to a whole.

Heading toward 2009, perhaps we should begin thinking of how to create the kind of critical mass that defines a city's culture in terms of what individuals do to contribute to the collective intelligence. In an election year, let's think about how smart we can be without elected leaders.

Assume we're ants angling for the best resources out there, the finest picnic to raid. In Richmond, that picnic would be a platter of local artists from Virginia Commonwealth University, for example — a basket of natural resources, a side of historical preservation, a can of local musicians, actors, nonprofits, dancers, troublemakers. Here are three rules to help us decide what's best to bring back to the nest.

1. Gather and Collect

The more interaction between people, the more information is exchanged. Opinions can be formed about that young gallery or the new artistic direction of that theater. We need a permeable barrier for this kind of continuous discussion, whether it's local media, individually driven news sites such as RVANews or just masses of people chatting at events like art walks.

Sometimes the constipation of information in this city affects how outsiders see us. In the music scene alone, Richmond has garnered a bad reputation for low turnout to see bands that sell out elsewhere. The friction of opinions and discussion builds that critical mass. Naturally, there will be a variety of ideas and arguments.

“Having somebody fight over what something means is not a bad thing,” Martin says. “It's in that discussion that people grow and learn and get excited about a place.”

That friction also shifts people's acceptance of art, of new things.

Take the “graffiti boundary.” Assume that everyone's appreciation of art is along a line, where a favorite painting is at one end and the worst kind of vulgarity is at the other. The graffiti boundary is the point at which expression, for you, crosses the line from having merit to being completely objectionable. It's a different point for everyone. Many people in Richmond consider a lot of expression, particularly public art, to fall on the bad side of the graffiti boundary.

Case in point: Over the weekend, Art 180, a nonprofit helping youth express themselves through art, held the Jonny Z Festival, dedicated to the late Jon Zanin. The Aug. 9 event featured the Bizarre Market, offering handmades and eclectica, as well as the unveiling of a mural on the wall of Joe's Inn. The mural was meant to complement another, painted by some of the kids in the Art 180 programs, farther down the alley.

When Joe's Inn owner, Michael Kafantaris, went door to door with the proposed mural, he received a lot of support. But a handful of neighbors cried “graffiti.” The attitude: “If we let this happen, it'll open the floodgates of depravity and vice!” In the spirit of compromise, the mural was painted on panels that were mounted to the wall.

“When you talk about applying paint to a wall in the Fan, people are just conditioned to think ... it's graffiti,” says Marlene Paul, Art 180's executive director. Art 180 has done a few murals in the city, and Paul says she hoped it would catch on like Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, an ongoing project which brings artists together with at-risk kids or graffiti writers to create murals. In its two decades, Philadelphia's MAP has installed 2,700 murals around that city. Paul says in Richmond, it's too difficult to navigate to get a project of that scope up and running. “It's a backdrop for the city,” she says, “and you know we don't have a lot of outlets for that.”

Public art is representative of arts in general — visual, performing, music, miming — because it can be a barometer for public acceptance of those other art forms. If a city encourages murals, it's likely to be encouraging to an all-mime production of “Sound of Music,” for example.

Michael Kafantaris plans to use the rest of that wall as a kind of outdoor gallery, serving as host to other works on a three- to six-month basis before being auctioned off. The money would go to Art 180 and other charities. As far as public art goes, Paul and Kafantaris push ahead, shifting that graffiti boundary toward a more tolerant setting.

Which leads to the second “rule” of the cultural swarm:

2. Promote the Vision, Whether You Like It or Not

National Geographic says it best: “Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.”

Sydney and Francis Lewis founded Best Products, made a barrel of money and gave a lot of it away. They also befriended artists such as Andy Warhol and Chuck Close, and were painted by those friends. The Lewises had an unconventional, visionary artistic sense — and the money to support art as they saw fit. They were good to Richmond and to VMFA. They were art czars, influencing the culture without ruling it.

It's unlikely that combination of resource and vision will shine on the city any time soon, but there are certainly others to push the sometimes-resistant culture forward. Some of them, luckily, are on the task force of the Cultural Action Plan. Others are independent or anonymous.

If you've seen any of the reportedly hundreds of paintings bolted to street signs in the Fan and VCU area, you've seen the work of an artist walking a tightrope along that graffiti boundary. The artist who calls himself Hope has made a mission of filling the public space with his colorful works, which share gallery space with yield signs and the like. In a recent story Style calculated his potential fines for defacing property at $1.8 million. Despite the risk, his is a feat that redefines how public art can be used — a variation on Joe's Inn's outdoor gallery.

More publicly, Amanda Robinson has pushed the agenda of Gallery5 since its 2005 inception — local artists, provocative events, Something Different. The mission has expanded to “public-art-related events and campaigns, community meeting space, a library” and “inner city youth art classes,” she writes in an e-mail. Robinson says she feels that major funding still goes to major arts organizations, and that Richmond's financial sector doesn't support grass-roots organizations like Gallery5.

Bringing the needs of the start-ups and upstarts into focus would seem to be one of the side-effects of the Cultural Action Plan, but the bottom line is that it's good for the culture for an individual with an idea to plug ahead rather than aligning support from the city, the neighbors. This isn't to say people should go nuts out there; rather that the city has plans, and developers have plans, and often those are prefabricated ideas imposed on a system that can't support them at the time. 6th Street Marketplace failed, the Canal Walk is a study in minimalism, and we have many lofts to show for it.

Whether hanging art on poles or planning a neighborhood, the individual risk-taker ultimately benefits the community at large. But that benefit is for the people to determine. Hence, the third “rule”:

3. Don't Just Stare at It, Buy It

Invest in arts and culture, whether it's a play, concert, meal, painting or a sculpture of Captain Crunch made out of Froot Loops. Spend some money. It seems like an obvious idea, but it's the way individuals in the swarm help the group decide which direction to move. It's natural selection, and your vote counts.

The popular ecosystem of First Fridays has exposed people to an array of local artists. Still, some gallery owners say the event remains more of a social gathering than an economic venture. Many Richmonders view the art on Broad or Main streets the same way they view the art at VMFA.

But at the Virginia Museum, the art stays where it is. In the galleries, it's supposed to go out into the world. VMFA will stay afloat through donations and state support, and there's a preservation quality to that art. The art walks, on the other hand, are living economic creatures — the financial health of both galleries and the artists depend on the purchase of the art. It's how trends are discovered, how tastes are refined — for the gallery and the artist as well as the patron.

Look at what's happening with these farmers' markets. Even as the health of 17th Street is debated, successful community-run markets are cropping up all over. Organizers and patrons are the same — no one's outside the system, running it. The market is shaped by what's happening every weekend, constantly being adjusted by the simultaneous decisions of hundreds of individuals. The market has its own intelligence, fed by the purchase of this melon or that egg.

Ideally the slow profusion of public art will increase public appreciation of art, and people will buy accordingly across the board, letting their purchases determine Richmond's tastes, rather than the donations of a company. The individual buyer is less arbitrary, stays within the system and creates those pathways — in dollars, not pheromones — that determine how close a culture is to that critical mass.

These “rules” are jumping-off points for a larger discussion of how the arts and culture here can evolve in what may well be the most natural way. The “wisdom of crowds” rather than the “ignorance of the masses.” And if the Cultural Action Plan acts as a guide rather than an imperative, the next year will be busy for all parties, including we, the birds.

“This has to be a bottom's-up plan rather than something that has to be imposed,” Martin says the day after the plan is publicly announced in June.

So by the time the flock of purple martins returns, the Richmond region's culture will be on the move, too. Let's hope for sherbet rather than crap on the windshield.

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