Early on a chilly Friday evening in mid-January, it's standing room only at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond's True F. Luck Gallery. For a Richmond art gallery's reception, the room is surprisingly hipster-free — aside from the twentysomething trio that plays quiet, atmospheric music in the lobby. Despite a smattering of Virginia Commonwealth University art students and a couple of high-school aged kids, the crowd is made largely of folks in their forties, fifties and older, most dressed in casual business wear, some sporting expensive-looking couture.
They're here to see a rare local exhibit by Richmond duo Robin Kranitsky and Kim Overstreet, internationally lauded artists whose 20-plus-year collaboration has produced intricate jewelry and miniature sculptural works that are in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Welcome to Richmond's other art walk — the galleries of West Main Street. Everyone knows about downtown's much-celebrated First Fridays affair on Broad Street. (whose organizers, galleries and businesses were named Style's 2009 Richmonders of the Year for their efforts at livening downtown and reinvigorating the city arts scene). But where the downtown art walk is young and A¬berhip — wild, edgy and showy, marked by swarming crowds, fire dancers and rock bands — Main Street's art walk is smaller, quieter, reserved even, with a mature clientele that's more focused on viewing and purchasing art than on the social aspect.
At the Visual Arts Center gallery, a well-dressed, conservative-looking husband and wife take turns peering through a magnifying glass at the intricate details of Kranitzsky and Overstreet's Victoriana-inspired works, which resemble the works of FabergAc as viewed through a prism constructed by Tim Burton or Dave McKean.
As it turns out, the wife, Vivian Buzzard, is a board member of the Visual Arts Center. An artist herself, she has a studio in her Manakin-Sabot home in Goochland County. She first found out about Visual Arts Center of Richmond (then called Hand Workshop) several years ago from a friend at church. Her husband, Jim Buzzard, is president of Richmond-based MeadWestvaco Corp., a Fortune 500 international paper and packaging supplies manufacturer that employs about 20,000 workers. They chat amicably about paintings they've recently purchased, galleries they've visited. They say they've never been to the First Fridays Art Walk on Broad, but they keep meaning to go. “It's on our list,” Vivian says.
They're typical of the clientele who frequent Main Street's galleries.
“On our First Fridays openings, we have a very educated crowd and they're very interested in the art itself and learning more about it, as well as purchasing art,” says Rachael K. Hawks, gallery manager of Red Door Gallery. “I think it differs from the Broad Street art walk because the crowd is more interested in purchasing [art] than the party aspect of it. … A lot of the artists we represent are established artists; they're not emerging artists. It's not the fire-eating-folks-dressed-up-going-crazy-downtown kind of scene.”
Page Bond of Main Street's Page Bond Gallery, agrees that Main Street's patrons and gallery goers don't need a sideshow of performance art to draw them to the galleries; the art itself is enough. Plus, she says, “If you're serious about it and you want to showcase these marketable artists who really work hard to get where they are, you're not so interested in doing something that isn't meaningful for the artist.”
Uptown Gallery's Kathy Miller says she hasn't often been to First Fridays on Broad, but that “it seems that it's a younger crowd. The art is a little more cutting-edge, more experimental sort of VCU student-influenced. Some of our members are experimental, but it's a little more seasoned artists here, I think.”
“Totally different vibe.” A packed crowd attends an art opening at Glave Kocen Gallery in 2007. File Photo by Scott Elmquist.At Glave Kocen Gallery, where husband and wife B.J. Kocen and Jennifer Glave teasingly describe themselves as a “dynamic duo ready to conquer the world,” Kocen says that when the galleries of Main Street are host to a First Fridays opening, “it's a totally different vibe.” The Main Street and Broad Street districts employ different approaches to interest people in the visual arts, he says, though both are valid. He thinks the Main Street galleries tend to attract older, more serious art collectors.
First Fridays “is definitely a sales-driven event up our way,” Kocen says, and that's a key distinguishing point between the districts. “The price points are a little more up there” in the Main Street galleries, Kocen notes, with some prices reaching well into five figures. Also, many of the artists who exhibit and sell their works in the Main Street galleries tend to be “nationally and internationally established folks that have been doing it for 30 to 40 years and have great accolades on their resumes. And there's plenty of that on Broad Street too, but I think [the] Broad Street [Art Walk] has a lot more emerging artists or artists that are really pushing the envelope of art, regardless of salability .… We just can't afford to take some of the risks that some of the galleries down on Broad Street take, and that's to their credit, I think. That's a very wonderful thing for them to do.”
However, while gallery owners along Main tend to view themselves as more concerned with the commercial aspect of art collecting than their counterparts on Broad, they also are passionate arts supporters, and many have close ties to VCU's art school faculty and students. For instance, the Reynolds Gallery and the Visual Arts Center (working with 1708 Gallery on Broad Street and VCU's Anderson Gallery) recently hosted a cooperative retrospective of the work of late VCU art professor Richard Carlyon.
“We exhibit regional artists of extraordinary talent, established and emerging,” says Bev Reynolds of Reynolds Gallery. “I feel like I have pushed over the years to raise the bar and show very challenging work,” such as shows by controversial Virginia photographer Sally Mann.
Despite being able to attract artists with wider name recognition, Broad Street's First Fridays Art Walk continues to attract far more bodies, with phenomenal crowds approaching 10,000 strong on some Friday nights.
Many of the Main Street galleries, on the other hand, aren't even open on the evenings of First Fridays. Artemis Gallery, Glave Kocen Gallery, Main Art Gallery, Red Door Gallery and Uptown Gallery usually are open on the evenings of First Fridays, and they might get crowds to come by in the early evening before things on Broad Street really get started.
Beverly “Bev” Reynolds of Reynolds Gallery, one of the first galleries to open on West Main nearly three decades ago. “I feel like I have pushed over the years to raise the bar and show very challenging work.” Photo by Scott Elmquist.So why don't the galleries on Main have as high a profile as their downtown counterparts? For one thing, even though the Main Street gallery district tends to represent established artists, it's still establishing itself. While Main Art and the Reynolds Gallery have been around for nearly 30 years, and the Visual Arts Center has a history going back to the 1960s, about half of the art galleries in the district have opened within the last five to 10 years.
For another thing, the Main Street galleries aren't that interested in organizing themselves. From all accounts, a recent attempt to create a business association fizzled, and not all of them are keen on trying to host synchronized gallery openings — on First Fridays or otherwise.
“I am an older art gallery owner, so I am not as interested in cutting off my Christmas vacation or my life plans to be open for First Fridays,” Page Bond says. “That's not generally when we launch.”
Jo Kennedy of the Visual Arts Center says it's not realistic to expect busy artists with national and international reputations to change their schedules to accommodate something like a First Fridays, particularly when they're installing elaborate shows that may last for six-week stretches. Rather, she says, the Main Street district's irregular schedule of gallery openings is something that should itself be celebrated for keeping Richmond's arts calendars packed during the rest of the month.
“Richmond is too large a city to think you can have one night for art openings and get [to] all of them,” Kennedy says. “Our feeling is that there are so many people in Richmond who are now part of the arts scene who enjoy going to openings that it's nice to have a number of evenings during the week that you can go to art openings. It's doesn't have to be all on one night.”