When many folks think of Richmond, they think monuments, and with good reason. There are icons at every turn, from the Christopher Columbus statue in Byrd Park with its backdrop of cascading water, to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who tap dances 24/7 atop his pedestal in Jackson Ward.
But there are numerous other public artworks around town, some abstractly subtle and others figurative, that don't commemorate history or celebrity. Along Belvidere Street you encounter two welded, steel sculptures about 15 feet high that serve as cubist bookends to Oregon Hill's Linear Park. If you're waiting for the Mega Bus across from Main Street Station, it's difficult to miss "Skyrider," a mixed media sculpture suspended from the Interstate 95 flyover. And inside the depot, the first thing Amtrak passengers encounter is an elegant oil triptych of local train tracks by Stephen Fox.
What these latter artworks share, with dozens of others around town, is recent vintage and placement in city-owned buildings and parks. They're the fruits of the city's Percent-for-Art program. In 1997, City Council mandated that a 1 percent allocation from the city's capital budget be earmarked for art in renovation and construction projects exceeding budgets of $250,000. The goal is to enliven public spaces, something cities have strived to do since ancient times, sometimes aggressively so. Think Florence in the Renaissance or Rome during the baroque era.
In Richmond, prime candidates for public art are highly trafficked and accessible destinations such as parks, clinics, police buildings, courthouses and detention centers, transit terminals, and recreation and entertainment centers. Once funding is established for the city project, a site selection team gathers to consider possibilities. The team usually consists of facility staff members, community members, the project architect, an official from the sponsoring agency and two or three members of the Public Art Commission, one of whom is an artist.
Next, the team makes an open call to artists. After applications are reviewed for artistic quality and the appropriateness of the conceptual proposals, recommendations are made to the Public Art Commission for final approval.
Among the dozens of installations completed since the 1990s are pieces at the Oliver Hill Courts Building, Pine Camp Community Center and the Richmond Ambulance Authority. Downtown on the Richmond Police Department headquarters at 200 W. Grace St., "Thin Blue Line" — a compelling ribbonlike metal sculpture by Michael Stutz that depicts the head of a policeman — glares out Big Brother-like. Set 30 feet above the stark, Jefferson Street sidewalk on a plain wall, the piece is a popular focal point in the newly designated Downtown Arts and Culture District.
But the commission's selection process isn't always smooth. In 2009, an artwork commissioned for the Manchester General District Courthouse near Hull Street, a 30-foot-high "Stainless Sphere," by Philadelphia artist Ray King, was rejected by the court's judges. The response stunned some commission members, who assumed their choice was binding. But Circuit Court Clerk David Hicks, speaking for the judges, said at the time: "It was not appropriate. Maybe in Las Vegas or in front of a big shopping center, but the judges ... weren't going to have that sculpture in front of the courthouse."
So it was back to the drawing board. Within the coming months, a large metal commemorative medallion by the Andrews/LeFevre Studios in New York, containing references to the history of Manchester as well as the court, will be implanted in a landscaped plaza near the courthouse entrance. The artist will visit Richmond soon to meet with court staff. "We all feel good about it," says Sarah Shields Driggs, an art commission member and an architectural historian who's written much of the current literature on local monuments and statuary.
Richmond's evolving public art program is based on models found in 27 states and some 200 cities nationwide. "Think Chicago," Driggs says, "and the great Picasso sculpture comes to mind." No one claims that Richmond has a modern public art object that iconic. And it's been quite a while since Richmond installed a sculpture as grand as the Washington equestrian statue in Capitol Square or Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue — both 19th-century additions to the landscape.
But that might be about to change.
The new city jail, under construction on 17th Street in Shockoe Valley, is budgeted at $146 million. Accordingly, $1.46 million will be invested in public art in and near the vicinity and in the broader community. That's a far cry from the budget of most projects in recent memory, ranging from $25,000 to $65,000.
This could be a game changer for public art in Richmond. And that means people are paying attention.
The morning agenda of the Public Art Commission's meeting July 19 lists 15 items, including six pending art projects. The group does more than oversee Percent-for-the-Arts programs.
But what's in the back of everyone's mind today is the eighth item, the most intriguing opportunity the commission has faced: How to spend some $1.46 million for public art at the new city jail, which will be named the Justice Center.
The budget for that single public art project is triple what the city has spent on all other art projects combined since the commission was created. This opportunity puts considerable gas in the commission's tank, but it also raises the bar.
The group is in the first phase of establishing a comprehensive public art plan. And with $2.8 million earmarked for public art in the city's current annual budget, there's increased note of the commission's deliberations. "We've had greater interest, more people attending meetings," says Douglas Dunlop, the deputy director of the Department of Planning and Development Review. He serves on the commission in a nonvoting capacity.
But commissioners officially can't vote on items without a quorum, and on this sultry morning, only four of its nine members are present for the monthly meeting, in a fifth-floor City Hall conference room.
Architect Susan Reed, who chairs the commission, soldiers on with a list of issues. A city police official approaches the podium to explain that his organization intends to remove the Police Memorial, an 8-foot, bronze figure of a patrolman rescuing a child, from Nina Abady Festival Park, a neglected downtown pocket just south of the Coliseum that once was a complement to 6th Street Marketplace. The statue has been there since 1987. Its new site will be at the Richmond Police Academy on Graham Street near Virginia Union University. The officer considers this a rescue mission in itself. "We own it," he says. The commissioners thank him for giving them a heads up.
What follows is a staff update on resettling a mothballed sculpture, "Mr. Smedley," by Ashland sculptor Jack Witt. The 9-foot depiction of a cheerful street performer once was a presence near the Grace Street entrance of the Sixth Street Marketplace. A number of neighborhood associations, including Forest Hill, Oregon Hill, Union Hill and the North Robinson Street, have expressed interest in securing the piece.
Next up is an extended discussion of where to place a statue honoring Richmond civic leader and businesswoman Maggie L. Walker. A sculpted memorial to the celebrated doyenne of Jackson Ward and the nation's first woman bank president long has been envisioned, but heretofore unfunded. But the 150th anniversary of her birth, to be marked next year, lends considerable traction to efforts to honor her.
The city's Dunlop reports that among five sites considered especially appropriate for the monument, Abner Clay Park in Jackson Ward, occupying the city block between West Clay and West Leigh streets and Brook Road, is the top choice among project proponents.
"Maybe we should put a statue of Abner Clay in the park instead," commission member Ed Trask suggests with sincerity. "I don't know who he is." Trask is a local artist who's become something of a celebrity himself for his large, colorful murals that adorn dozens of exterior walls throughout downtown and the Fan District.
Abner Clay, it turns out, was a longtime Jackson Ward business and civic leader, who with his wife, Margaret, was an advocate for children's recreation.
Commissioner Holly Morrison, a faculty member in Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Arts, picks up Trask's train of thought, apparently anxious to trigger a more philosophical question to generate discussion: "How do you connect place to history?"
Chairwoman Reed, noting the lack of a quorum, pleasantly but firmly cuts things off: "We can't vote on it today."
The next agenda item concerns a now-stalled public art project intended for Firehouse No. 17, the city's newest station, which sits in Canoe Run Park and faces Semmes Avenue on South Side. The station was eligible for the city's Percent-for-Art program. And the commission had enthusiastically approved a stainless steel ring with a fire motif for the station. But city legal officials took so long getting a contract to the New York-based artist that he might be too busy to fabricate the piece.
As the meeting nears the two-hour mark, Dunlop reports on a project that doesn't require official commission involvement. A Virginia General Assembly committee, with Richmond Sen. Henry Marsh as prime mover, wants to fast-track completion of an emancipation monument in time for the 2015 UCI World Road Cycling Championships, for which Richmond is serving as host. The committee's first choice of location for the monument is Brown's Island, a nod to its natural beauty and high popularity as staging ground for many premier local festivals and events.
Although commission members have no say, they weigh in nonetheless, seemingly anxious to engage in a thoughtful discussion of what they've come to City Hall to discuss — public art. And they aren't convinced Brown's Island is the optimum place to mark the emancipation of slaves.
"I feel like Brown's Island is getting heavy [with sculpture] and I don't know how accessible it really is," says Morrison, an artist.
The piece "should have a quiet or reflective tone to it," says Anne Fletcher, who heads up the art collection program at Capital One and is attending her first commission meeting. "Would it work there with all the hustle and bustle?"
When most of the commissioners agree that the slave burial ground in Shockoe Bottom, whose development and interpretation is in its infancy, might be a more appropriate location, they're informed that this was the General Assembly committee's second choice.
"But they are shooting for visibility now as opposed to future development," Dunlop says. "Besides, there's history to Brown's Island. There was a significant amount of slave labor there and John Jasper, the renowned pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, preached and baptized people there."
Trask doesn't buy into Brown's Island as an ideal spot. "The crowds represent something different. The place is like a festival park now," he says, referring to the May 18 incident when a concertgoer injured musician Frederick "Toots" Hibbert during a performance. "I don't know that a place where people are swigging beers and throwing vodka bottles at a reggae artist is the best place for an emancipation monument."
On a good day, the public art process engages various — and often varied — groups, voices that should be part of the decision-making process. And the neighborhoods and sites within those districts where art projects are placed is an indicator of what locations about town are most highly prized — or aren't.
In Richmond, where so much public art during the past 200 years traditionally has been honorific or narrative— whether memorializing a Confederate figure or a civil rights leader — the noose of an often troubling history is always threatening to tighten. This reality requires commission members to dance a delicate minuet in order to balance sometimes competing and always shifting community interests.
And then there are aesthetics. Although Richmond's artistic tastes basically are conservative, art is never static. Especially in a region and university community full of emerging and practicing artists who put stock in artistic innovation.
Some people are asking whether a solitary, heroic figure on a pedestal or a free-standing, abstract sculpture in a downtown plaza relates to contemporary audiences that are highly addicted to a 24-hour information flow and ripe for enhanced and interactive experiences?
"The question we should be asking is how has the notion of public art changed in the last 20 years," says Ashley Kistler, who's curated major public art projects and serves as director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery, which mounts mostly contemporary art programs. "In so many aspects of our culture the boundaries are dissolving altogether."
"There shouldn't be a disconnect between architecture, urban planning and public art," Kistler says. "To rely on any one of these things [in developing public art projects] is a mistake. There are not strict divisions anymore in contemporary artwork. The separation of painting and sculpture is useless. Now video is often intermixed."
"It's gone so far beyond the realm of 'plop art,'" she says, referring to the standalone object that characterizes most of Richmond's public art.
While Richmond is both enhanced by, and is famous for, its freestanding sculptures, the prospect of placing art at the city jail offers compelling opportunities. This is because of a reasonable budget and the sociological complexity of the location. No one has suggested that a freestanding work of art will suffice.
"Many folks have asked, 'Why do you need public art at a jail?'" commissioner Driggs says. "The flack started almost immediately."
Others might respond, why wouldn't you have art at a jail?Driggs says the commission welcomes the debate: "This is a good thing." The commission's challenge will be taking a broader, more environmental approach to the project, she says: "It could be an art-inspired, landscaped waiting plaza or playground."
While the Anderson Gallery's Kistler agrees, she's adamant that the opportunity at the new jail requires fresh approaches for the artist-selection process. "When you have a substantial budget it becomes more important to do that," she says.
"We think about civic spaces differently now," Kistler adds, "With all the talk of creative communities, it makes sense to look holistically [when developing public art]. It absolutely has to be integrated into other plans for Richmond."
"People don't realize what their options are," she says, "There are so many rich alternatives than ever before. It makes the evaluation process more difficult. But aesthetics are never simple."
Since its establishment, the Public Art Commission usually has chosen a specific site and then advertised its call for entries internationally. It then selects from submitted proposals. Kistler suggests the process should be changed. "A call for entries is not a way of going about this," she says. "It's a recipe for mediocrity or maybe disaster. There should be thorough research and an invitational situation. That way you're able to have the best artists come in and make a public proposal and public presentations."
"And to get a good start," she says, "What about some preliminary programs such as public lecture programs that address these topics in all their manifestations?"
"For a city that has remarkable public art," she says, "it's a great failure not to do that."
The commission has yet to begin deliberations on how to proceed with art for the Justice Center.
Armed with a substantial budget and the backing of the mayor and City Council, the Public Art Commission realizes that it's game time. But it's proceeding cautiously. The commission has embraced the idea of developing a comprehensive public art plan, something that previous critics of the program have called for, and has contacted officials involved in public art programs in Norfolk and Arlington, two cities whose public art programs are more ambitious and better funded than Richmond.
The commission is also exploring informally the possibility of creating a nonprofit foundation that could raise additional or matching funds for public art projects and better leverage the money that's designated from the Percent-for-Art program. Such fundraising currently is prohibited by city commissions, and these changes could require additional staffing.
"Heretofore we've just been working project by project with money that's come in by drips and drops," Driggs says.
"Public art is an investment," she says, "It stimulates our children and it's a community builder. Even if people disagree, it gets them talking. We want to commission projects that get people to appreciate who we as a community are." S