The Frame Up 

Reference Gallery and Russell Projects make something happen.

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If you believe the prevailing wisdom, we're in the worst recession since the Great Depression. So why — at a time when people are even afraid of George Clooney as a corporate ax man — are people opening art galleries?

“Now is the best time to negotiate commercial leases,” says Heather Russell of Russell Projects. “Commercial spaces are the most vacant in the city of Richmond. Above condos, above homes for sale, you can negotiate a great lease, you can get hugely talented artists, and if you work on consignment with an artist. … share the retail price with them, you can make a decent living and you can also really add to the cultural fabric of Richmond.”

Russell Projects joins Reference Gallery as one of two new art galleries to open during the past year. Both have been met with positive reception, gathering nationally recognized artists and lesser-known up-and-comers. In establishing their brands, though, both galleries have seen the best and worst of how the city treats cultural ventures.

“You walk down Broad Street in Richmond, which is what we did, and you see all these abandoned storefronts, and they all have these numbers to Realtors. … these guys are like nationally known Realtors that buy out abandoned store fronts,” says James Shaeffer of Reference Gallery. “And we were laughed at a couple times.”

Reference started in 2009 as an unofficial space housed in Conor Bachman's apartment building on Monument Avenue. Back then, “Monumental Gallery” buzzed with excitement, which led to Bachman's collaboration with Ross Iannatti, James Shaeffer and Edward Shenk to move to a larger venue. The Reference group (all full-time students) began searching last spring, and were shunned by numerous real-estate agents when applying for leases.

“It's totally different when you're leasing out a commercial space — they charge you per square foot a month,” Bachman says. “A lot of the landlords wanted to know, ‘What is your business plan, how are you going to fund this, am I going to really be getting my rent from you guys?' This place had been on the market for a year and it wasn't going anywhere, I think the landlord [eventually] was like, ‘F—k it.'”

Reference is now established at 216 E Main St., and showcases work from artists around the country that the members find challenging — creations that contrast with the fare found in most art-for-sale galleries. Reference has had three exhibitions — not without complications.

 “[In Baltimore] they don't have people go around to openings and make sure things are in compliance and mess up things for them,” Shenk says. “We had to get a business license, we got zoned and also occupancy.”

“Yeah, you can't just go down to City Hall and get a business license. It's not that easy,” Shaeffer adds. “You have to get an occupant to sign for the plans here, which is a whole different issue.”

Shenk continues, “People would come by and just look around and say that you might be able to pass the inspection but they actually don't know because, even though they are inspectors, they have no idea what they're doing.”

Russell, of Russell Projects, found fewer complications because of her extensive resume as a gallery owner and experience as a Virginia Commonwealth University professor. “What's more difficult was looking for investors that were willing to put money up in advance for a new gallery,” she says. “It's hard when you're doing it yourself.”

Russell Projects landed at the Plant Zero building in Manchester and recently enjoyed a very successful opening. Its first show was half sold-out after two weeks (prices range from $300-$15,000). What helped Russell was the City of Richmond's Commercial Area Revitalization Effort program, which works with businesses in specific low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and reimburses owners 50 percent of all interior and exterior rehabilitation costs up to a certain amount. The program, which encourages economic development in these areas, also provides loans to commercial spaces.

“I came to them after the fact with my receipts,” Russell says, “and that's basically all you have to do, is show your receipts of things. … like lighting systems, security systems, all my signs … and they pay you 50 percent. They just write you a check.”

Both galleries seek to expose Richmond to new art and to work with other major cities. “One thing that's incredibly easy nowadays is getting artists on board because, unfortunately, so many galleries have closed in places like New York and other big cities because of the recession,” Russell says. “So it was really easy to find the talent.”

“We just had a road trip up through New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, and it was really surprising to hear how many people are aware of what's going on here now,” Shaeffer says. “I know in Baltimore we had people approach us and be like ‘Oh, you guys run Reference Gallery.'”

Pitfalls aside, Richmond's cost of financing a gallery is far less expensive compared with larger cities. Russell says it's worth whatever cost, and that exposure to art is even more necessary during a recession. “We are visual creatures,” she says, “and whether it's watching a dance performance, attending a film festival, visiting a gallery exhibit, or listening to a poetry reading, these affordable and often free creative outlets actually make us feel better, and leave us inspired and hopeful.”

 “Art is always going to be important regardless of the economic situation,” Bachman from Reference says. “The first priority is always just to show work that we think needs to get shown. Art can really be open to a whole lot of different possibilities. It's really just about doing it. … taking this opportunity to make something happen.”

Reference Gallery presents a show from sculptor Ryan Crowley called “Scouting Foul” until March 6. For information visit

Russell Projects presents a solo exhibition of artist Helena Wurzel called “Vanitas” until March 7. Information at

To learn about the city's CARE program visit



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