As an artist, I love Richmond. I've lived here on and off for 33 years.
I loved all of its dirty Southern punk as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. As an adult, I love the farmers markets, great restaurants and things to do outdoors. It feels like you can do anything here. Yes, we have poverty and food deserts, crappy transportation and only one progressive elected official — but hey, it's an old city and change comes slowly.
Richmond is proud of its creativity. There are murals, craft fairs, First Fridays, Arts in the Park, makers' spaces. Richmonders handcraft everything — beer, furniture, sausage, signs and doughnuts. What I've come to understand from participating in this innovation is that creative outcomes are encouraged.
But creative spaces are not.
There's such an entrenched inefficiency that doing anything legally is almost impossible. Like most governmental administrations, getting what you need to start a project in Richmond is all about who you know. If you're connected with the right person, magical permits rain from the sky. Since I have so little support and few connections, I've always found that the do-whatever-you-want, apologize-later model worked well — until now.
Artists spend their lives trying to negotiate the money needed to eat and pay rent. Sometimes we just can't afford studio rent, so we need to remain exceptionally flexible. That flexibility has a lot to do with where we locate our studios. They're often found in unused industrial and high-poverty areas to keep rent low. We get to play apocalypse if we're in a deserted industrial area. If we're in a residential neighborhood, we also get to know and speak with different people in the city. In Richmond, these people usually are poor and black, which provides perspective for such artists. In the process, I also end up making friends and become a part of a neighborhood.
As trends go, artists attract other artists to an area, making what officials typically view as an "edgy" and novel hotspot. Artists unwillingly become accomplices to developers who smell potential in the place, build condos and price out all the residents — artists along with them. And then the cycle starts again. For reference, check Richard Florida's term creative class. The economist and social scientist says that 12 percent of creative jobs drive much of the economic growth in postindustrial cities.
In 2008, I had the idea that instead of aiding the gentrification of neighborhoods by helping developers seek out the hip but unexploited areas, I'd try to become an integral part of my neighborhood. I'd provide after-school help for children in the neighborhood. So I worked with others to create the arts collective LoveBomb. It was designed to showcase some of the talented artists of Richmond and tap into volunteerism to make some real change — providing an urban garden, a place to see movies, a free meeting space for the neighborhood.
I wanted to make changes happen in the education, diets and culture of my neighborhood — not as a savior, but as a neighbor who cares. My own child is a part of the project, and I see my idea and an extension of my artwork: to not only make objects, but also to help people through creativity and activism.
But as you begin the process that every small business in the city of Richmond must deal with, licensing, you begin a Kafkaesque descent into the madness of bureaucracy. I've been sassed, laughed at, told multiple times to bring in unnecessary materials, forwarded to offices on different floors where people have told me everything from "You need $1,800 and six months to change zoning" to "You need architectural and structural engineers plans, and $800," to "This is not going to work."
I no longer have the patience, money or laugh track necessary to deal with City Hall. Since I've been speaking out about my situation, countless individuals have approached or emailed me about their hardships with the city.
Richmond's vitality depends on new models of creativity in small business. This should include 21st-century nonprofits that provide for the communities in which they reside with jobs, assistance and consistency. Small businesses and nonprofits can't compete with such big projects as CenterStage, the ballpark and Venture Richmond. And because of inefficient and archaic bureaucracy, many small-business owners are frustrated, overtaxed or complicated out of existence.
If you're a small creative space, watch out: Once the city finds out about you, you're finished. Art spaces aren't a part of the zoning and coding process. They just don't fit the measured, one-size-fits-all requirements that apply to large developments and larger corporations.
That's why I'm asking the city to create an innovation administrator within City Hall to assist in the navigation and facilitation of business zoning and code permits. You can sign my petition at change.org (tinyurl.com/InnovationAdministrator).
If you don't think these spaces help the city, step back and see the industry of surrounding artists. Look at all the galleries, collectors, writers, historians, curators and museum staff, film industry staff, art educators and professors that surround a single artist. If you need further proof that art helps the economy, ask local nonprofits and private or public schools how they raise funds in auctions, or how programming funds are raised for countless good causes from the generosity of artists.
Then think about the space we need to make these things. S
Professional artist Heide Trepanier is the director of LoveBomb, a creative nonprofit in the Manchester and Swansborough area. She teaches in the art and art history department at the University of Richmond.
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