If you're among the throngs that have joined First Fridays Artwalk since it began seven years ago, you know that the number of Richmond art galleries is rapidly growing. A guide to local galleries issued by the Arts Council of Richmond lists 33 art venues -- and at least six have opened since the council published the guide last year. Proving this isn't a centralized phenomenon, Richmonders also have dedicated their all-important drive time to scenes in Manchester, Petersburg and Main Street.
Plays Well With Others: A-
A healthy commercial-gallery climate requires art sales. Corporate collections and an influx of private buyers are helping sustain Richmond gallery art sales, but the city's most powerful contributor to venue vigor is Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts. It's attracting top faculty and student talent who, by showing, curating and critiquing here, elevate overall standards and boost collectors' enthusiasm. An added bonus is the relationship between VCU and its alumni with out-of-town galleries and museums, which bring attention to Richmond and strengthen buyers' faith in what we have to offer.
Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, two cities often compared to Richmond, have thriving gallery scenes, but without an artist-magnet like VCU, they can't compete with Richmond's vibe.
Potential for Development: B
Most of the galleries thriving in Richmond are doing so by selling conventional paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. For those selling alternatives to that model, sales aren't that easy.
Page Bond Gallery sometimes shows unconventional work and must be creative in order to sell it. Owner Page Bond's relationship with Fortune 500 collectors has helped. "The corporate environment is better and smarter," says Bond, who sells to companies that realize a stimulating physical environment is an important enticement when recruiting the best and brightest employees.
ADA, a gallery that's made a name for itself by selling art that challenges conventional formats and subject matter, survives on an ultra-lean operating budget. Owner John Pollard sells mostly to out-of-towners he knows from his grad-school days in San Francisco or to those who discover the gallery through the Internet or art fairs.
"The Chamber of Commerce should be giving me gas money to get to these fairs," jokes Pollard, who spends so much of his time promoting Richmond as a great place to live and a legitimate location for a progressive gallery. ADA is hosting exhibitions by Brooke Inman, a VCU M.F.A. candidate, and New York-based artist Yuliya Lanina, who creates sculpture and animation with reconstructed dolls.
Media traditionally regarded as "craft" (ceramics, glass, metal, wood and fiber) are rarely exhibited locally, though Quirk Gallery is working to remedy that. Quirk's Kathy Emerson locates artists (often through VCU) and organizes exhibitions based on unlikely themes and/or underexposed media. The gallery's March exhibition, "Here and Now: Wood and Would Not," will feature work by local and national wood artists.
Nonprofit galleries such as 1708, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and VCU's Anderson Gallery depend on funding to make noncommercial exhibitions happen, and all three manage to raise money to mount good exhibitions on a regular basis. The Visual Arts Center's new True F. Luck Gallery promises to keep new artists and ideas afloat, while the Anderson struggles to do the same in its substandard physical space.
The Visual Arts Center opens a Virgil Marti exhibition March 6 that explores how artists transfer their ideas to other media (like wallpaper). Anderson Gallery's exhibitions, "Gord Peteran: Furniture Meets Its Maker" and "Familiar Faces," in which artists interpret the human face, run through March 2.
Overall Grade: B+
From sleek exhibition halls to spaces carved out of retail operations, Richmond is rich with art galleries. Quantity matters, but quality matters more. Richmond galleries could be presenting a more diverse offering of conceptual and material approaches.
Paulette Roberts-Pullen is a freelance writer and designer. She has written for Style Weekly for 15 years.