1708's new director, Peter Calvert, aims to embrace the community while challenging it with difficult art.
Provoking a Reaction
What hooked Peter Calvert into visual arts was the chance to provoke a reaction. Once a shy poet who kept his work in a notebook, Calvert remembers becoming instantly hooked on the in-your-face feedback when he began exhibiting his pottery. And it's still that chance to generate a reaction in people that makes him relish being the new head of 1708 Gallery, the oldest, artist-run gallery in the country. For Calvert, providing leadership to 1708 amounts to protecting a vital public service. Right now, he says, an increasing number of arts organizations are shying away from presenting work that one group or another might consider unpleasant. "It's awful when people shut down and retreat into their little boxes and hide away because of fear that an audience won't process anything or see anything challenging," he laments. "Clearly, it's our mission to be a place where difficult work can be shown. The world is difficult, human relations are difficult. Unless you confront these difficulties and express them straight-on, they're only going to pop up someplace else." That doesn't mean Calvert deals only in manifesto. Instead, what he sees at 1708 is an opportunity to strike a smart balance between embracing community and having the guts to challenge it. Take the "Go Fish" project, a community-friendly initiative undertaken in cooperation with the city of Richmond that will make its debut in May. That's when you can expect to find 5-foot polyurethane fish sculptures popping up all over the city, each one created by a local artist. Sure, it's probably not groundbreaking, aggressive social commentary unless you're passionate about the resurgence of rockfish in the James River. But it's a way to keep contemporary art present in the lives of everyday people and to do it by creating far-flung partnerships in that effort. When else would organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Association, Catholic Charities and Target work on a common project? "I was really attracted to this idea put forward locally by our board member Susan Jamieson to bring together the nonprofit and the for-profit sector as partners around art," Calvert says. "To get across the idea that art can be, and should be, out in the public." Creating large-scale collaborations is his M.O., actually. Growing up in East Harlem, later studying art at Kansas City Art Institute, Calvert most recently worked as a university gallery director in Tyler, Texas. He has shown or curated work across the country and around the globe in places such as South Africa, Korea, Canada and Japan. And a lot of it has been large-scale, calling on the voices of many artists. Among his favorite projects is a 28-artist installation of woodcut prints built around the broad theme of the Mississippi levee project and the birth of blues music. Specifically, Calvert focused on the fortuitous first recordings of blues master Muddy Waters by John and Alan Lomax in 1941 recordings that were completely accidental since the folk singer the Lomax brothers really wanted to find had been poisoned two years earlier. In asking the artists to interpret the theme, Calvert found that "every day was Christmas" as he'd unwrap each of their packages to see what had emerged. Eventually, the work was displayed in nine locations in three countries. Calvert considers that project, and all curatorial work, to be like building a gigantic, exciting puzzle. Right now, his master plot for 1708 includes expanding the number and quality of artist applications to show work in the gallery. He's after technical virtuosity, and he's an admitted sucker for texture and composition. But in the end, it's his instinctive response that seals the deal. "Mostly, I look for work that makes people stop and say 'Ooh,' 'Why,' or 'I never would have thought of that,'" he explains. Further down the line, Calvert is taking aim at bringing diversity to what Richmonders put on their visual and intellectual plate. "I'd like for people in Richmond to see not only the wonderful art that's being done locally in Richmond, but also to see what's being done outside of Virginia," he says. "I'd like us to become a place that people put on their A-list of places to show work. A place where they know people care about and see art." All signs seem encouraging right now. For him, 1708's fiery chemistry is the key starting point to push the organization to its next level. "There are two extremes when you talk about arts organizations," he jokes. "You can have the totally artist-run board in an old industrial warehouse with one light bulb burning and the members refusing to talk to anybody without a communiqué. They have complete independence and a following. Then, on the other hand, you have places like the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] with a board of directors that doesn't make art at all, and who have the luxury of working with conveniently dead artists. They deal with work that already fits into safe, recognizable categories. Really, in the middle is where it gets interesting. You get this mix of artists and community members who have set their roots down in a city and marked their territory. They say, 'Yes, we want to do art here. We want to say something here. We want the best artists here.' And I think 1708 is that kind of
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