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Voices Rising

While the city pushes big plans, grassroots arts groups are getting themselves heard.



First Fridays Forms Nonprofit

While the city keeps trying to come up with big, new projects to revitalize downtown, somehow local artists never seem to land on the radar screen. Christina Newton took matters into her own hands. Her First Fridays Art Walk attracted 31,549 people to an ailing part of Broad Street last year with little, if any, help from the city. The art gallery openings, held the first Friday of the month from October to June, saw an 85 percent rise in attendance last year.

Newton, who first organized the event through Artspace gallery in 2000, has just quit her day job. She’s formed a nonprofit called Curated Culture to work on First Fridays and to promote the local visual-arts scene. “There hasn’t really been a voice for the visual arts in Richmond, and we’re hoping to provide that,” Newton says. She also hopes to link artists to the area and help artists connect to other economic opportunities.

Her work has already helped promote Broad Street as an arts corridor, and has even attracted some local businesses. Jason Alley, owner of Comfort restaurant at the corner of Broad and Jefferson streets, says the Art Walk played a part in his wanting to open his business in the area. He says he was looking for an edgy neighborhood, and the galleries proved to him there was a renewed interest in the area. “Even when it’s not First Fridays people still come down and go to the galleries and to this neighborhood, which they were not doing before,” he says.

Newton doesn’t fault the city for not funding her project because she has yet to put in a request for money. She does, however, feel that too much attention is centered on economic development rather than cultural awareness. Civilizations throughout time have been judged by their art, she points out. Richmond needs a cultural-affairs department, she says; if one existed her Curated Culture might not be needed. “If Richmond were to look at major cities they would see neighborhoods thriving due to their appreciation for local arts and celebration of cultural diversity,” she says. “Most importantly, these successful cities promote and publicize [arts facilities], taking the lead in fostering appreciation for the arts.”

Artspace Moves to Manchester

Although things are going well for the Art Walk, Newton says she is sad to hear Artspace — one of the walk’s anchor galleries — announce its move to the new PlantZero arts complex in Manchester. Artspace’s new gallery space will be adjacent to Art Works, a new arts facility similar to the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center, on Hull Street with 70 artist studios, event halls and three galleries. Newton, who served as Artspace director in 2000, says she’s worried about the survival of Artspace in that area. Since the gallery is dependent on donations, she feels that the less-central location will hurt the already financially ailing gallery. Apparently she’s not the only one upset. The members of Artspace were torn — the vote to go was 18-7.

Artspace board member Petie Bogen-Garrett says she spearheaded the move and even found the building for the two artists running PlantZero. “It just makes sense for us to move to a high-quality space — we’re going to put on shows like never before,” she says. “How could we resist that?” The main reason Artspace members voted to move is that the building will be designed by architects specifically for their needs, and the area is being touted as the new arts district. Mitzi Humphrey, Henrietta Near and Marian Hollowell, three of the four founding members who started Artspace 15 years ago, oppose the move and say they will now most likely disassociate from the gallery because of it. Humphrey posted a seven-page letter on her Web site stating why the gallery should stay. “Artspace has been instrumental to the burgeoning cultural development of Broad Street and to the sponsorship of First Fridays,” she wrote, “and we should stay around to reap the benefits and to contribute our pathbreaking creative energy to the new Broad Street cultural corridor, which we helped to start.” Near agrees and says she fears that Artspace’s image will be compromised by being associated with the more amateur-friendly, nonjuried artist work spaces that will make up the rest of the Plant Zero complex. She also says she and Humphrey are considering opening a new gallery.

Save Richmond Speaks Out

The Artspace controversy is not the only conflict in the arts community this fall. A group of Richmond artists has come forward to raise questions about the proposed Performing Arts Complex downtown. Three writers — Don Harrison, Andrew Beaujon and Ewa Beaujon — started by writing an open letter to the city, quoting economic development scholar Richard Florida’s theories about promoting the “creative class” in order to revitalize downtown. “Richmond’s woeful track record in downtown-rehabilitation projects does not encourage us,” they wrote. “We remain unconvinced that an arts complex is the answer to downtown’s torpor.” They also quoted a Florida speech he gave at the city’s economic conference in the winter: “Arts complexes may provide some infrastructure, but they are far from the solution. … Communities need street-level arts and music scenes and the energy they generate to be successful.”

Building on those ideas, Harrison and the Beaujons posted a Web site, Their ideas were circulated and the next thing they knew, they had 100 names signed to their online petition and the Performing Arts Foundation was asking to meet with them. Harrison says his main concern is that the proposed complex is more of an idea generated to revitalize the city, rather than one that has the local artists in mind. The idea behind Save Richmond is not to oppose the complex but to ask questions, such as what kind of effect is this going to have on smaller arts organizations? Who is going to fill the seats? Who is going to be the arbiter of art? (“It’s important to remember that some of the people on the board are ones that [tried to stop] Marilyn Manson from performing here,” Andrew Beaujon says.)

They also are unsettled that the arts organizations have only one spot on the board, and that the complex seems to be an idea executed by businessmen with no knowledge of the arts. The Beaujons, who moved to Richmond from Brooklyn, N.Y., last year, say they started their effort because they saw the frustration of their friends who were local artists and musicians. “The crazy thing about Richmond is that it’s always looking for what it doesn’t have, … [meanwhile] Richmond has its boots on the face of the indigenous performers here,” Andrew Beaujon says. “I think everything’s really great for the opera, ballet and symphony,” adds Ewa Beaujon, referring to the arts organizations that plan to serve as anchors in the complex. Yet she points out that there’s an international trend that attendance to those groups’ performances are declining. “When you’re giving favoritism to one segment of the arts, you’re not really for the arts.”

Foundation President Brad Armstrong says his organization plans on having continued discussions with Save Richmond, but the main thrust of his organization is to serve the nonprofit arts groups, while Save Richmond’s focus is local for-profit artists and musicians. He also says that all the venues in the complex will be available for rent by local groups. After the recent 1 percent meal-tax increase — which Save Richmond tried to oppose — and after continued requests to see up-to-date feasibility studies for the complex, Harrison and the Beaujons say they will take a new approach to getting their voices heard. While continuing discussions with the foundation, they will start to concentrate on improving conditions for the local music scene. They hope to form a nonprofit and organize soon. “There are so many people that have been unhappy but have never felt they’ve been able to do anything about it,” says Andrew Beaujon. “We’re not going anywhere; we own our house.” S

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