Here's an idea for the old, destitute, unused buildings which our city owns but has no plans to use: Let not-for-profit arts groups make productive use of them.
Allow the So-and-So Arts Collective to lay claim to a junk building, clean it, repair it, bring it up to code, create art in it and have regular presentations for the community. Allow AAA Artisans to unleash a cadre of volunteers on a forgotten edifice, scrub it, install lighting and seating, brighten its neighborhood with a hard-working presence, and sparkle the streets with patrons. Allow Artists-for-All to resurrect a spider-webbed structure, hang bright banners on its facade, befriend its neighbors, be proud of its sidewalks, and open its doors for public events.
How do we know that a not-for-profit arts group would actually do all that? How do we know that artists could do what it takes to rescue a cast-aside building? How do we know they would create anything the public would want to see? That they would enlist volunteers? That they could actually turn a dull, surplus building into a source of exciting creativity?
We don't. BUT. There's a prototype among us. It's right there on the south side West Broad Street in that block just past Lombardy. Drive by; you'll see the banners.
Five years ago a theater group (now called the Firehouse Theatre Project) set up shop in an abandoned, city-owned fire station. The city provided the dilapidated space rent-free to this volunteer group of professionals. Firehouse Theatre Project volunteers and patrons repaired the roof, fixed the bathrooms, cleaned and hammered, and created and is presenting theater and other arts disciplines there more than 200 public presentations so far.
Did you read the recent news about George Wythe High School's drama group winning first place in the state and regional competitions? Do you know where they practiced and performed just before going to the regionals? The Firehouse. I was in one of those audiences that stood and cheered those terrific George Wythe kids at the Firehouse.
The Firehouse Theatre Project has made use of 500 volunteers in these past few years building stages, designing sets, constructing box offices and concession counters, and installing 100 seats. My wife, Janet, and I have been two of that 500. I hung one of the art shows, and Janet is currently the telephone volunteer who is lining up 24 volunteer ushers for the next production.
Who else besides George Wythe High School has performed in this rescued building? It's a big list: Kaleidoscope Theatre, Encore Theatre Company, Take 5 Comedy Troupe, Voice In Hand, Shard Live Performance Collective, The Governor's School, Monacan High School's Green Room Players, Richmond Performing Arts Collective, Virginia Union University, Open Stage, Richmond Theatre Company for Children, plus a variety of individual performers. And if you know the theater scene in town you can confirm that this is a diverse list. Translation: Plenty of African-American participation at the Firehouse. The old, formerly purposeless firehouse has also presented 20 art exhibitions in conjunction with the performances.
What actors have performed there? The list is a good one. It includes Richmond's blue-chip stars such as Mary Sue Carroll, Michael Goodwin, Jeanne Boisineau, Jenny Brown and Liz Ernest. It also includes newly acclaimed stars such as Sara Heiffitz, Justin Dray and Juan Conde. And it includes pre-pro stars such as those talented students from George Wythe.
And what playwrights have been featured there? A big variety. They've ranged from Tennessee Williams to David Mamet, from Israel Horovitz to Richmond's Harry Kollatz Jr.
The hard-working, nonsalaried professionals and volunteers of the Firehouse Theatre Project have multi-handedly turned a nobody-cares, drive-by building into one of the most interesting tickets in town.
What a perfect prototype for what could happen in others of our city's surplus buildings. Buildings which we taxpayers own. Idle buildings which have no use.
BUT. A huge BUT.
The city has now received a cash offer from somebody who wants to buy the firehouse building. (There were, of course, no buyers five years ago.) And the city you and I as represented by our Council members plans to sell it. Soon. This summer.
The building will have no more plays. No more art exhibitions. No more pre-competition performances by the George Wythe kids. The five-year run of 200 public performances will end.
What will the new owner do with the space. Good question. Should we care?
Mayor Tim Kaine told me the offer is almost $80,000, and that will, of course, give us Richmonders more money for other needed services in our city.
I could perhaps see us taxpayers accepting an offer of a few million in exchange for making all those good things and good people vanish from the Firehouse, from that block on West Broad. But $80,000? Seems to me that we Richmonders are getting an unbelievably great bargain already without selling the building.
John Bryan is the author of "The James River in Richmond."
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