When Anne Hart Chay, owner of the Visual Art Studio, moved her gallery to West Broad Street in the mid '90s, the area's cultural offerings were often a well-kept secret. “My First Friday receptions in 2000 were mostly the artists and their friends and my friends,” she says. “Maybe 50 people enjoying the festivities.”
How things have changed. “It's an amazing night on the town,” says Christina Newton, founder and director of Curated Culture, the nonprofit group that manages today's First Friday Art Walks. “You can not only start your night off with dinner and drinks, you can see a play, experience a diversity of visual art exhibitions, shop and likely see live music.”
Thanks to Newton's group, and the work of dozens of participating venues, Richmonders have walked the gallery district of West Broad Street on the first Friday of the month for 10 years now. This week, world jazz ensembles Rattlemouth and Hotel X will perform a free concert to celebrate this grass-roots program, which has succeeded in rehabilitating downtown when numerous big development projects and taxpayer-funded initiatives have failed; other special events are planned throughout a yearlong commemoration.
Also marking the occasion is the Art Walk's official eastward expansion, blazing a trail farther into Jackson and Monroe wards. In March, the success of First Fridays East, a collaborative project with CenterStage, University of Richmond Downtown, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the Library of Virginia and businesses in the area, led to the permanent addition of these venues to the roster.
Newton saw the impact of that first eastward expansion. While people waited outside the National for an alternative rock show, an Americana group played at the Library of Virginia. CenterStage was host to a free performance of Richmond Shakespeare's “Othello,” in addition to a performance by the Virginia Opera. Meanwhile, people dressed to go clubbing walked down Grace Street, and the usual First Fridays crowd thronged West Broad.
“It really kind of made a connection,” Newton says. “Even though I know downtown is changing, just seeing that was revitalizing. You wouldn't have had that 10 years ago. So hopefully as we go into our 10th season we will continue to create awareness of downtown as a place to be all the time. We have a real city with real city amenities.”
Other venues included in the eastward expansion include the Capital Ale House Downtown, which will offer special monthly activities in conjunction with First Fridays. Parking woes are addressed with the Hilton Garden Inn offering reduced fees at the Fifth Street garage. The Jefferson Hotel validates parking in the Main Street lot with any purchase at Lemaire Restaurant, including drinks. Free parking also is available at St. Paul's Episcopal Church and at the United Network for Organ Sharing.
In addition to being the lead sponsor for the kick-off event, CenterStage will work with Curated Culture to coordinate programming with First Fridays. “It's great to build on our partnership,” says Newton, who came to Richmond to study art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. She went on to direct Artspace Gallery, and in 1999 presented the idea of an art walk to the board, with the concept realized the following year. What started as a volunteer job ended with Newton founding and working full time for Curated Culture.
“Art walk programs are popular in many cities. … Basically it was a formalized marketing of what was already happening,” she says. “We kind of packaged it, made a brochure, set up cooperative hours. We wanted to not only create awareness of art galleries, but we also wanted to bring people back downtown to help the community and to help the businesses. So we were very successful in doing that.” An estimated 4,000-5,000 people visit the affiliated venues on those First Fridays.
“The arts have proven time and again that they can help with economic and community development, especially economic development,” she says. “And we have done that in Richmond. I'm hoping that people will fall in love with downtown again. You can make First Fridays your introduction to downtown, but make downtown part of your weekly habit. That's the bigger picture.”
Chay agrees. “I'm here five days a week. I'm not here just on First Fridays. Once people get down here, they realize we're here.”
View information on Curated Culture and the First Fridays Art Walk at www.curatedculturerichmond.com.Note: The print edition misidentified the band Hotel X as "Motel X." We regret the