Cultural Insanity 

Richmond's Community Assisted Public Safety program, known by the acronym CAPS, was set up to do something a bit more serious and substantial than busting small-scale music shows and arts events.

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If you want to get the attention of local bloggers, buy them food. And if you want to engage them, issue a challenge.

John Bryan, the new president of the revived Arts Council of Richmond, recently invited a group of arts-oriented Web masters to lunch to discuss the kind of advocacy role that his organization — soon to be renamed CultureWorks — should take as it refreshes its mission to become the voice for arts and culture in the Richmond area.

A champion fisherman in his off hours, Bryan also cast out a provocative notion to the assembled bloggers and writers. He challenged us to come up with one main issue that CultureWorks should focus on that would greatly benefit the city's grass-roots arts community.

Why was this meeting, and this challenge, such a big deal? Well, the Arts Council has heretofore been rather toothless, timid and closed off. While it's helped to distribute local arts dollars, the nonprofit has functioned more or less as a rubber stamp for the region's more well-to-do arts organizations. Until now, it hasn't seen advocacy or outreach as its true calling; what has happened at the grass roots has either been ignored or shunted aside.

The net result of the Arts Council's conservatism has been a serious cultural vacuum, with no official representative to speak up for arts and cultural interests on issues relating to the law, economic development or civic outreach. A dysfunctional arrangement like this can result in, say, a large arts center being built with mostly taxpayer money but without any real input from the creative community (see: CenterStage) or our most successful arts-related ventures (see: First Fridays) being ignored when it's time to allocate city resources.

There were some fine ideas and potential programs passed around over lunch.

There was talk about a billboard art competition, and also a potential campaign to get rid of the city's crippling admissions tax on concerts (the latter also was a recommendation of the recent Regional Arts and Cultural Plan, commissioned by a cross section of Richmond nonprofit arts groups).

For me, the answer to Bryan's challenge is as clear as today's headlines. If CultureWorks is really going to be relevant and helpful, it needs to start a campaign that promotes and argues for Cultural Sanity in our city.

And it needs to do it now.

Before the thriving grass-roots galleries that fuel Curated Culture's First Fridays are buried under a bureaucratic pile of citations, ordinances and heavy-handed busts.

Before yet another established music club is shut down by nervous politicians and the implementation of new unnecessary restrictions — many of them aimed at punishing one particular strip-club owner whom the city doesn't like.

Before we see one more retailer, boutique or bowling alley shut down or fined for holding small-scale music shows inside the business when a warning letter would address the problem just fine.

And before the Fan District Association's censorious party patrol becomes better-funded than the city's own police department.

In recent issues of Style Weekly, Richmonders have learned that the city is considering new restrictive measures on nightclubs, and that it's waging a war on street-level arts and music events. Richmond's Community Assisted Public Safety program, known by the acronym CAPS, was set up to do something a bit more serious and substantial than busting small-scale music shows and arts events. As the city Web site explains, “CAPS seeks to eliminate blight and restore luster to our neighborhoods by partnering with citizens to identify and eliminate the problems associated with the most troublesome properties in our City.”

But instead of focusing on the biggest lawbreakers and safety violators of city codes — say, the absentee landlords of some of Richmond's many vacant buildings — officials have been cherry picking the easiest places to fine and then raiding them without warning. Lately, they've been finding their juiciest targets in the arts and calendar sections of local magazines.

City Councilwoman Reva Trammell offered this explanation of the program's current mission: “I know the city is looking for all the money it can get right now.”

She should know. Trammell was one of the council members who voted in favor of CenterStage's recent $25 million bailout from the city. She also voted to give the private CenterStage Foundation $500,000 a year in walking-around money. She also said yes to Richmond's current budget, which would allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to an economic development consortium, increase funding for the Fan party patrol, fund yet another Shockoe Bottom consultant's study and add a $91,000-a-year policy analyst to the City Council staff.

No wonder the city is looking for all the money it can get right now.

So what's the answer to the insanity? Members of the city's creative class could all move to Petersburg, as visual artists from the displaced Shockoe Bottom Arts Center were forced to do in 2003.

Or we can say enough is enough and fight back. And wouldn't it be great to have a champion to lead the fight? If the new CultureWorks is intent on advocating for arts and culture, why not start with a very visible and vocal campaign that lobbies against Richmond's ongoing war on arts and culture?

The former Arts Council should have plenty to share with city officials about how supporting, instead of targeting, the arts is a win-win proposition. CultureWorks could introduce to city leaders the recently passed state legislation that allows Virginia localities to create special arts and cultural districts without General Assembly approval. The organization could point out success stories from arts-friendly cities, such as Pawtucket, R.I., Santa Fe, N.M., and nearby Charlottesville, and disseminate copies of a new study that shows the economic benefits of fostering music scenes.

More importantly, it can argue that the heretofore-unsubsidized First Fridays has helped to revitalize downtown after decades of taxpayer-funded build-it-and-they-will-come projects have failed.

No doubt it will take effort. At City Hall, bad habits are hard to break. Take recent proposals to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

Is Richmond really willing to spend millions of dollars on a new ballpark to lure more people downtown while it forces out and aggressively fines the people who already patronize and do business downtown?

Clearly it's time to fight for Cultural Sanity in Richmond. And for sanity in general. S

Don Harrison is a writer based in Richmond, and the co-founder of

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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