With faces painted an eerie red in the dim, neon glow in Gallery5's cavernous downstairs performance space, two-dozen grim-featured, slightly damp city officials convene to talk about art.
It's early in the morning on Oct. 15 — too early for Amanda Robinson, the gallery's owner.
A scheduled meeting with Rachel Flynn, the city's director of community development, and two city police officers had become a bureaucratic show of force after weeks of mounting media pressure and an outcry from the local arts community about the city's building-code crackdowns of the popular First Fridays Art Walk.
“The reason the other folks are here is because of an incident that happened at the last First Friday,” says Richmond's new chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall, his commanding baritone abruptly calling the meeting to order as he explains that he'd brought so many department heads with him “so the resolution can be fast.”
Outside, a steady drizzle slicks the pavement where the incident to which Marshall alludes occurred less than two weeks ago, when police officers extinguished the G5 fire jugglers, citing a lack of proper permits.
The incident — widely reported by local media in the days following — embarrassed city officials. The zoning crackdowns have cast City Hall as unsupportive of an event that's sparking economic revitalization in the Broad Street corridor. And it cast a further pall over First Fridays, leaving the city administration to fear that the ensuing controversy might harm future attendance at the eight-year-old event.
Notably missing from the agenda at the Gallery5 meeting was what may prove to be the ultimate solution: The creation of a downtown arts district, which would allow a relaxation of zoning and building code requirements that limit the number of visitors allowed in the galleries at one time.
Marshall refused Robinson's attempts to steer the meeting toward arts districts (“that's not why we're here,” he tells her), but afterward he says the city is “willing to look at” the possibility of such a district: “We're open to the notion. We're just looking into this issue — we don't know what [zoning ordinances or grant programs] we already have to make it work.”
There's logic to the measured approach. Leaping legislatively without looking might have unintended consequences, he says. “You may lose some of the vitality if you really try to make everybody conform,” Marshall says.
Last week Staunton announced the creation of its Red Brick District, created under a new Virginia law that allows any locality to create an arts district — replete with a whole host of tax benefits and flexible zoning ordinances — without having to seek specific General Assembly approval.
Staunton's announcement was the culmination of 18 months of work. But most importantly, says Amanda Huffman, Staunton's assistant director of economic development, it required close cooperation between city officials and arts leaders.
Until now, that hasn't happened in Richmond. City Council President Kathy Graziano says she's had no conversation with any city leader regarding an arts district, and says she was unaware until last week that state legislation allows localities to create such districts on their own.
“I think it's a great idea,” she says of creating an arts district.
The arts community, meanwhile, has also been slow to react. CultureWorks, a recently instituted arts advocacy organization, is only just stepping into the fray, but without the total trust of the small-time gallery owners who question whether the new organization's attentions are too much on the recently opened and comparatively massive CenterStage project farther east on Broad.
Curated Culture, the cash-strapped promotions arm for First Fridays, has tried for months to enlist larger local arts organizations' help, says the group's director, Christina Newton, but to no avail.
Marshall says that regardless of whether an arts district is the answer, the First Fridays Art Walk has become a top priority for the administration. “We want [First Fridays] to work,” says the veteran administrator with experience in Austin, Texas, and Atlanta — both cities where culturally focused downtown-revitalization efforts spurred growth. He acknowledges a shortfall in Richmond's response so far, but says it's something that's changing.
Robinson will believe it when she sees results.
Meanwhile, frustration was thinly veiled by some of the city officials involved in the meeting.
“They're putting out 4,500 lawyers every year out of law schools,” says an agitated police sergeant, suggesting the G5 fire jugglers could have exposed the city to “vicarious liability” if a pedestrian watching the event had been hurt by a passing car on Marshall Street. “There is no conspiracy to attack First Friday by the Police Department.”
The tension highlights the delicate balance that City Hall must strike: upholding code-enforcement laws without undermining an expanding downtown arts event.
“I don't know [that] we paid enough attention to it collectively,” Marshall says.
Robinson, despite her disappointment that the meeting didn't delve further into the possibility of a long-term fix, says the meeting is a sign of progress.
“The city, they want to prove that they do care, they want to prove that they do support the initiatives happening in downtown Richmond,” says Robinson, who was told last week that the city will hold monthly meetings with the galleries to coordinate First Fridays. “We do appreciate that. I just hope this doesn't turn into another meeting and another meeting and another meeting.”