Two Virginia Commonwealth University graduate sculpture students briefly stop taking pictures of a massive work constructed of found wood and weathered planks, rope and Plexiglas to talk about their space, the Biggs Building. The former Biggs furniture company warehouse is the temporary home of VCU's sculpture program. When VCU's lease expires this month, the school will vacate the building.
"I think there's an energy here that's probably not existing in other parts of Richmond," says Kim Baronowski, who's completing her first year of graduate work.
Tom Robinson thinks so, too. Robinson is a developer and the international liaison to the Russian Federation's Administration of Civil Defense. He also founded and volunteers at the Virginia Fire and Police Museum down the road from the Biggs Building in Carver, and is the building's agent. He's witnessed the improvements in the neighborhood over the years and credits VCU's presence in Carver and the increased student traffic and security it brings with some of those improvements.
But VCU's lease on Biggs expires this month, and the department is moving out, and taking out the more than $2 million in improvements it made to the building in the three years VCU occupied it. Robinson hopes to convince VCU to leave the building intact, and find a buyer to purchase the building and develop it in conjunction with local groups and arts-related non-profits as a community-based arts resource center loosely based on studios in Shockoe Bottom and Fulton Hill.
Beth Solin, who created the work that she and Baronowski are photographing, says, "If this turned into an arts center, there's no way you wouldn't rent it."
Standing in the top floor exhibition space, it's hard to argue. There is so much air and light streaming through the three sides of the room that are floor-to-ceiling rows of mullioned windows that Solin's sculpture feels like a treehouse.
Robinson, a fit middle-aged man with thinning light brown hair and blue eyes, clearly relishes speaking with the artists.
"When I come through, I get caught up in the excitement," Robinson says.
The only catch is, according to VCU's lease with the building's owner, John Edwards, when they vacate the building, the improvements must go, too, to turn the space back into a warehouse.
When VCU signed a three-year lease to use the Biggs Building until the school's new fine arts center on Broad Street was built, the old brick building on the corner of Goshen and Marshall Streets, marked by a high, shiny, metal tower on four legs, was just a warehouse. But VCU made the building itself a work in progress. The wide, long rooms were partitioned into studio spaces for students. New power and gas lines were installed to fuel the heavy-duty lathes, band saws, sanders, kilns and welding equipment that the sculptors and ceramicists need. And heavy, metal fire doors and new bright overhead lights were put in.
In all, according to Robinson, VCU has spent between $2 and $3 million dollars improving and transforming the warehouse into the home for one of the country's top-rated sculpture programs improvements that VCU will remove to turn the space back into a warehouse when they leave, unless Robinson can convince them not to. That means a request from the Carver neighborhood association.
"I can fill it up with warehouse space, that's not a problem," Robinson says. "But I felt strongly enough that we could save this building."
Robinson has contacted the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Richmond Public Schools, Richmond Boys Choir, Arts Council of Richmond and mayor's office, among other groups, to generate support for the plan and, hopefully, the $1.25 million asking price. Robinson says that since the owner didn't pay for VCU's improvements, he wouldn't figure their value into the building's sale price. For now, Robinson says Edwards is willing to wait while Robinson's vision takes shape.
"It's a fantastic building, and it has lots and lots of potential for not only schools, but community-based programs," says Sam Banks, the coordinator for arts and humanities for Richmond Public Schools.
Mike Etienne, an RRHA planning and development coordinator, agrees. "What Tom is trying to do an arts center is working very well for Shockoe Bottom. I think it could work in Carver."
But the jury is still out among Carver residents. At a meeting last month the Carver neighborhood association approved Robinson's plan, and the group drafted a tentative letter to VCU, asking for the university's continued involvement as a partner, or helper, in the community. But Barbara Abernathy, the president of the group, wasn't at that meeting. At last week's meeting, she refused to sign the letter (and the next day would not comment on the project for Style Weekly) until she could speak with some of the groups Robinson was lining up to support the arts center project. Other members of the Carver group also refused to comment until Abernathy could get up to speed.
And without hearing from Carver, VCU is out for sure. VCU spokesperson Kyra Newman says, "We never did have plans to be in that building for the long term ... [VCU will] honor our commitment to Carver, to be there for the lease and then move into the Fine Arts Center."
Robinson, Carver representatives, and members of the groups from whom Robinson hopes to get support met with Mayor Tim Kaine on Friday afternoon, after Style Weekly went to press. Kaine says that if the Carver association backs the plan, he will, too. "My sense of that is, that would be great if the neighborhood supports it," Kaine says.
Robinson is optimistic that he can come together with the Carver group and beat the mid-May deadline of the lease expiration. "I felt really led to do this," he says.
The RRHA's Etienne, who works closely with Abernathy and the Carver leadership, agrees. "I think the community supports the concept of the Biggs Building in its current use," Etienne says. "Tom has been working hard on this. With his persistence, I think we'll get it
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