The Main Event 

Richmond’s biggest public art projects pull into the station this season.

Richmond’s History with Public Art

Thanks to its status as a state capital and for a while, the capital of the South, Richmond serves as the site of fine examples of public art works. Jean Antoine Houdon’s 1788 sculpture of George Washington in the Virginia State Capitol is one of the earliest. Like Richmond’s public art to follow for the next 200 years, it is heroic and commemorative.

When Gen. Robert E. Lee’s monument was unveiled in 1890, Richmond’s attention to public art, specifically art memorializing the Confederacy, took off. Lee’s heroic likeness initiated a series of monuments that would help to turn Monument Avenue into one of America’s greatest boulevards. But as Richard Guy Wilson, architectural historian and one of the authors of “Richmond’s Monument Avenue,” reminds us, “it may be a place of residences and churches, a street of movement and communication, but ultimately Monument Avenue is the site of memorials to the Confederacy.”

Emotions behind Monument Avenue’s statuary dedicated to the Civil War remain strong. But the unveiling of the street’s most recent statue, the Arthur Ashe monument, proved just how divisive public art could be. With a historically loaded site, an African-American community feeling underrepresented and underserved, and a nonexistent city policy for gifts of public art, the Arthur Ashe monument was the subject of bitter debate until the day it was unveiled.

Public Art Today

For those determined to restore a sense of civility to modern cities, the issue of public art boils down to money. Who would finance something that seemingly offers no identifiable financial return? Corporations do, though infrequently, and agencies like the Virginia Commission for the Arts sometimes help foot the bill, too, especially if the project is by a Virginia artist, like Paul DiPasquale’s “Bateau Man” at Brown’s Island.

In the 1930s, a handy solution introduced in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries called for a percentage (usually from half a percent to 2 percent) of public building and rehabilitation budgets to be designated for public art. Many state and local government programs are modeled after this Swedish precedent. Richmond’s own “One Percent for Art” program is the only such program mandated in Virginia. Adopted in 1991, it is responsible for most of the city’s latest permanent installations of public art. It calls for 1 percent of its capital improvement expenditures to be spent on works of art located in or on city buildings or land. Since its inception, commissions for public art have been directed to fire stations, parks and the police training facility. Its biggest commissions are about to be unveiled this fall.

Stephen Fox’s three large paintings for Main Street Station, to be installed in September, will be the first. A Virginia Commonwealth University graduate now represented in New York by OK Harris and locally by Reynolds Gallery, Fox was chosen from dozens of entries by a panel that recognized the artist’s ability to convey the unique flavor of Richmond with intense theatricality. All three images portray complex intersections of river, roads, bridges and train tracks that characterize Richmond’s urban face. The paintings will be installed in the station’s entrance area to emphasize the nature of the station’s site.

John Newman’s installation at Main Street Station, not yet completed, but scheduled to be unveiled sometime in November, will be the biggest digression from Richmond’s established “collection” of public art. Newman is a New York artist who was recently awarded the Prix de Rome and whose work is in the collections of the Modern Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His winning entry for the station’s exterior plaza proposes an abstract sculpture that will be suspended from Interstate 95 directly overhead. Like Fox’s paintings, Newman’s installation responds to the specific quality of the site’s immediate environment, and will no doubt bring a good deal of attention to it.

Great public art is really a detail (a painting, sculpture, landscape design) within a setting that is so closely linked that the two are difficult to separate. The monuments on Monument Avenue are especially awe-inspiring, whether or not one sympathizes with the Confederacy, because of the monuments’ relationship to the Boulevard itself — its buildings, its parklike character and the carved spaces created for the monuments to rest. When care is not given to marry art to its immediate context, what you have is, as one writer put it, “plop art.”

This was one of the failures of “Go Fish,” a project spearheaded by the 1708 Gallery in 2001 that placed decorated fish forms about the city. It could also be an issue with a percent-for-art program if not for the fact that the city’s public art office falls under the guidance of Sally Bowring, a professional artist and art teacher who clearly wants to do what’s right for the community. With so much at stake, Bowring is organizing a town meeting this fall that will allow Richmonders to have an open discussion with Stephen Fox and John Newman. “I want people to take ownership of this art.” Bowring insists. “I want them to get excited about it.”

In the meantime, local organizations are sponsoring public art events and temporary installations that are relevant to the specific sites in the city but, because they are short lived, less likely to be the subject of heavy scrutiny. Urban Light Works, a relatively new nonprofit in Richmond, is organizing urban-oriented events where students and professionals can use downtown Richmond as a backdrop for performances and visual happenings like video and movie projections. On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 the group will host such activity at the Turning Basin.

Another project sponsored by Hand Workshop Art Center will bring together nationally recognized photographer Wendy Ewald with Carver Elementary School students to make large-scale banners that will be installed in the Carver neighborhood next spring. Ewald will encourage her collaborators at Carver Elementary to document their ideas of community, family and home in order to create a self-portrait of Carver in words and photographs.

The city’s latest endeavors with public art are looking promising. With projects like these, Richmond public art may get just the boost it needs to jump into the 21st century. S

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