When John Bryan first took a job with the Arts Council of Richmond in 2008, the General Assembly was in the midst of making budget appropriations. He immediately headed to the State Capitol to speak up for the arts.
But seeing other causes seeking money left him conflicted.
"It was jam-packed," he says. "I went in there with kids who had every sort of affliction you could think of. And I did not speak up for arts and culture. How do I say it's more important to give money to the opera than find a cure for cancer?"
Bryan had found his challenge for the next six years: How to improve funding for the arts when studies show that 94 percent of the population believes arts and culture causes are doing fine and should be tended to only after the essentials.
"I believe that hospitals and highways enable us to live, [but] arts and culture are among the things we live for," Bryan says. "Give a man a sandwich, it will sustain him for a couple days. But put a song in his heart and it'll be with him for his entire life. So which is more essential? That's always the battle."
Bryan retired Sept. 2 as president of CultureWorks, the arts advocacy organization he helped create from the ashes of the 60-year-old Arts Council of Richmond. During his tenure, he successfully lobbied City Hall to cease taxing performance tickets given away by nonprofit arts groups, and was a leading advocate for creating a downtown arts district.
He also attempted to commission a study to determine the effects on the city's tax base of abolishing the admissions tax — which brings in roughly $2 million a year. Bryan found two organizations to develop proposals for the research, but says CultureWorks could never come up with the money.
"Some persons believe that if the tax were to go away there would be many more events and venues in the city, resulting in more taxes than what were collected from the admissions tax," he says. "I reserve my opinion until after I see some valid research."
CultureWorks receives grants from a variety of corporate and civic sources. It also raises money through its annual Arts and Culture expo, which has given $175,000 in cash to more than 100 local arts groups, Bryan says. It gave nearly $58,000 in micro-grant awards in 2013-'14.
The Richmond region sees about 5 million attendances at arts and culture events a year. Bryan knows because he's counted them. He also goes to every event he can — recently, he and a friend were the only guys in suits at Dave Brockie's metal-head memorial at Hadad's Lake. He even got a promotional River City tattoo on his leg.
CultureWorks is searching for Bryan's replacement.
"He's going to be a hard act to follow, he was so personally involved," says Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History center. "It's been five years now since the cultural plan was completed. Many of the key initiatives John really pushed, in terms of creating alternative funding streams for small organizations and raising awareness in the business community of the importance of the arts. He's moved the conversation and raised Richmond's profile nationally."
For most of his tenure, Bryan kept Martin's Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan in his top desk drawer as a blueprint. He says he's most pleased with the brand that CultureWorks has established — as a source for advice, guidance and facilitation.
Bryan tended toward the upbeat side of arts-related issues, staying out of the fray of such public debates as CenterStage financing and programming, the city's controversial noise ordinance or its Community Assisted Public Safety program, known as CAPS, an effort to crack down on property violations that some local artists and musicians said went overboard in its affect on small venues and shows.
CultureWorks has given out about $2 million in grants since it started — putting Shakespeare in Battery Park for the first time, providing guidance and consultation for the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission and helping a variety of nonprofits with all-important small grants. And whoever's head of CultureWorks also is on the board of CenterStage — and Bryan sees it as a positive force.
"CenterStage is special nationally. We're lucky to have it," he says. "The formula for creating it and allowing that money to be there is extremely complex and it allowed a lot of entities to be at the same table. … My focus is on the miracle of everyone coming together. Obviously there are difficulties in any complex endeavor."
Bryan says he'd like to see the area's large music community coalesce and present one voice when it comes to relevant issues. And he's encouraged by the growth of the arts district, noting that its evolution will take years.
Under Bryan's leadership, CultureWorks became well-networked with similar groups across the country and earned national recognition in 2012 for its arts advocacy. He says he hasn't found another city that's a better model than Richmond — in other words, he remains a diehard cheerleader.
He cites the number of events, their accessibility and affordability, and the relative harmony of the arts community. "We also have the best feeder for arts and culture with 3,000 full-time arts school students here," he says, noting that a third of graduates stay. "No other city in the country has that," he says.
For now Bryan says it's time to get back to some personal projects.
"I've loved every second of [CultureWorks], but it's been all-consuming," he says. "I've published several books, hundreds of articles, art shows; until this job I always had something like that going on. Now it's time to get back to it." S