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Familiar Faces

The Visual Arts Center celebrates 50 years by refocusing its mission.



When the Hand Workshop changed its name to the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in 2005, there was some consternation. The nonprofit had been formed by Elisabeth Scott Bocock in 1963 to give Church Hill youth something artistic to do with their hands. And people thought its original name was unique.

Visual Arts Center? Not so much.

But time heals all wounds, as they say outside of Virginia. And Vis Arts has remained a scrappy grass-roots arts center by staying focused on its mission, namely filling the growing need for community arts learning.

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Vis Arts is serving 600 kids during the school year while offering 400 classes annually for children and adults, says curator Caroline Cobb Wright. It's the largest nonuniversity arts education program in the state.

But that doesn't mean the going is easy. Vis Arts has seen two interim and one full-time president since Jo Kennedy retired in 2010. Losses during 2011 were a little more than $340,454, according to the center's 990 tax forms. And, sponsored by the Community Foundation, shows that while revenue from class fees was on the rise from 2010-2012, individual donor revenue dropped almost in half.

"When leadership changes, there is a certain amount of refocus," the center's president and chief executive, Ava Spece, says. "We have righted the ship ... and we are working very hard to grow and expand what we do. It's not just about numbers of people but trying to grow and expand geographically as well."

Sure enough, there were significantly fewer losses following 2011, according to tax forms.

Then there's the backdrop of change and competition. Although Richmond features a generous donor community for the arts, the next big thing is always on the horizon and can divert financial support. In this case, Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art has been attracting big-name donors.

Popular local artist Ed Trask was asked to be on the Vis Arts board as a liaison to the local arts community. He says he was amazed by the amount of revenue the organization raises. "For me their longevity comes from constant engagement and they have amazing teachers," Trask says, noting that Vis Arts also must compete as an educator with the nearby Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — which pulls federal and local dollars — as well as two universities, all within a 5-mile radius.

"It might not be the most perfect business plan," Trask says, "but they have a constant donor pool that has been vital."

He also doesn't foresee lost donor dollars to the VCU project as a problem in the long run. "There's nothing wrong with inundating Richmond with culture," he says. "Eventually, the [ICA] is just going to bring more people to the Vis Arts Center."

Darcy Oman, president and chief executive of the Community Foundation, notes that the functions of the two organizations in the community are entirely different. She also says a wide array of forces can be at play in the donor pool. "During the brunt of the recessionary period, a lot of people were making different purchasing decisions," Oman says. "You really have to look at patterns of giving to the arts more broadly."

Vis Arts maintains support from corporate donors such as Altria, Dominion Resources and Bon Secours Richmond Health System. The center must raise 42 percent of every dollar in its $1.8 million budget, Spece says, noting that events such as craft and design and collectors nights are important for revenue.

Looking to the future, Vis Arts just completed strategic mission planning during the past year. Elements include fueling younger donor population using modern fundraising methods such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, as well as expanding staff and services and adding more innovative programs.

One such program in early 2014 will involve Susie Ganch, a VCU associate professor of metal and a leader in the international radical-jewelry-making movement, which teaches ethical jewelry craft through recycled materials. The center will run a community drive for donated jewelry Jan. 1 through Feb. 14. Then local and national jewelry artists and 20 VCU students will engage in the creation process through March. The results go on display in the gallery. Local fashion celebs such as Pam Reynolds already have donated.

Spece says the strategic planning showed a lot of "additional potential for growth in serving the community," and that Vis Arts will focus on what she feels is its biggest asset — the staff and teaching artists.

Vis Arts also has unveiled a 2,500-square-foot, hand-screen-printed collage made over five months by 10 VCU students directed by North Carolina artist Bill Fick. The goal was to ask anyone with Vis Arts experience or memories to submit images of any kind to create a living portrait. The colorful results include several images of Bocock, former and current students and faculty members, and the center's first home in Church Hill on 24th Street. "We wanted it to reflect the institution in terms of being inclusive and original creative undertaking," says curator Wright.

Since 1985, Vis Arts has been operating from 1812 W. Main St., the site of the old Virginia Dairy, where many artists and students have had formative experiences.

Abstract painter Emily Ellingsworth has taken classes and just started teaching there. She loves the age diversity represented in her classroom, she says, which can range from a 14-year-old to a retiree.

"I love that Vis Arts is noncompetitive, nondegree-pursuing, so everyone is there for personal enrichment and they get out what they put in," Ellingsworth says. "The bulk of what they do is providing a community resource for kids — especially important these days when the creative arts are dying out in schools."

Paula Owens, who served as executive director from 1985 to 1996, says Vis Arts has been organized from the beginning around the idea of getting people of all ages involved.

"In the arts, we used to talk about audience development as crucial to survival. Now, we talk about 'engagement' as crucial to audience development," she writes in an email. "Artists know that making is a form of inquiry and discovery, and those that teach pass this on to their students. The resulting culture of an organization like Vis Arts generates authenticity and allegiance."

But new board member Trask may have put it best: "The most important thing is that it's still changing lives, that's the power art has," he says. "As far as it being a business model, I'm still learning that part." S

"Reflections: Celebrating 50 Years of Creativity at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond" runs through January in the building's True F. Luck Gallery. To participate, visit

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