The Second Act 

He's clashed with the Richmond arts community for three years. But Mayor Dwight Jones says he's ready to make peace.

click to enlarge Mayor Dwight Jones is pleased with the creative energy he's been witnessing from the city's arts scene, but he stops short of believing that Richmond is in the midst of a cultural renaissance. "We don't have a lot to brag about."
  • Mayor Dwight Jones is pleased with the creative energy he's been witnessing from the city's arts scene, but he stops short of believing that Richmond is in the midst of a cultural renaissance. "We don't have a lot to brag about."

Mayor Dwight C. Jones is the first to say it: "The arts are not my background."

The Baptist preacher and veteran politician acknowledges that he's never taken an art class, performed in a play or learned a musical instrument: "I sang in the church choir, does that count?"

Still, Richmond's mayor says he wants to be a cheerleader for his city's arts scene. So why do so many people in the creative circles — from mural painters and musicians to marketing professionals and show promoters — privately say Jones is detached from, and even somewhat hostile to, the cultural forces at play under his watch?

It could be the inconsistencies. Jones' administration seems strict enough about details to take away Monument Avenue permits from a children's art project (Art 180's "What Do You Stand For?"), saddle nightclub owners and music fans with new stringent ordinances on occupancy and dancing, and make area visual artists jump through bureaucratic hoops to create public art. At the same time, with almost no public debate or serious financial scrutiny, City Hall has no problem handing over $14 million to the CenterStage Foundation / RPAC to renovate the Landmark Theater. The same public-private entity has spent $50 million of taxpayer money to renovate the Carpenter Theater but has yet to open its finances for public inspection.

But even Jones' critics can't ignore the promising initiatives he's introduced. One is a live-and-work space being readied for 24 artists through the mayor's ArtBusiness Richmond program. "We hope that that will be a draw with the arts kind of people," he says of the $3 million project at 213 E. Broad and 214 E. Grace (the city contributed $300,000 to the venture, expected to be completed later this year). The administration also has proposed an official Richmond arts district, a widely scaled plan that has critics but also the buy-in of many arts and community groups.

On a muggy Wednesday afternoon last week, Style Weekly interviewed Jones, his press secretary Tammy Hawley sitting nearby, in a small City Hall conference room. The conversation covered a wide range of arts-related issues, including the details behind the proposed Landmark renovation, Richmond's controversial noise ordinance and recent booster-led efforts to brand River City as a capital of creativity.

click to enlarge Emboldened by successful initiatives such as the G40 Art Summit (pictured) and the RVA Street Art Festival, area visual artists are beginning to publicly complain about his administration's less-than-accommodating attitudes and regulations. "I think any type of city or government is inherent with bureaucratic red tape," the mayor admits.
  • Emboldened by successful initiatives such as the G40 Art Summit (pictured) and the RVA Street Art Festival, area visual artists are beginning to publicly complain about his administration's less-than-accommodating attitudes and regulations. "I think any type of city or government is inherent with bureaucratic red tape," the mayor admits.

Style Weekly: When you're at conferences with other mayors, and one of them brags about the cultural amenities that his city offers, what do you turn around and brag about concerning Richmond?

Mayor Dwight Jones: We are a city that's evolving and there is a lot of creative energy in our city. Part of my role is to provide a conduit for that, a way for that to be expressed. And so we don't have a lot right now to brag about.

Really?

I go to cities where they have budgetary allotments for huge public art displays, they have architecture designs that are very significant. ... I do think we'll have some things to talk about if we continue with the kind of creative energy I see in the city now.

Do you support Councilman Bruce Tyler's proposal to limit public art expenditures [in the 1 percent for the arts program] on capital projects to $250,000?

No, I don't.

Because that won't get the best public art?

Exactly. I think that when you go to larger cities, or not even larger cities but cities that are sensitive to the need for artistic display ... you just see a lot of public art. We visited Norfolk not long ago and we visited some public housing and they actually had art in that. I remember commenting on a piece of art that was there in the entrance.

How important are the arts to Richmond's economic vitality? Is it an afterthought or a prime component?

I think it's a very prime component. And I think that if the city is going to thrive, we have to have that dimension. ... The demographic of our downtown is age 18 to 35, it's a youthful demographic. So it's changing. New urbanism is taking place. If we are going to continue that and stoke that, we have to make sure the arts are a vital component of our identification, our DNA.

Broad Street is what I'd call our front door and it really needs to look better than it looks, so we are intentional about trying to do that. The creative class is kind of around that area so that I think it has a lot to do with bringing people downtown. And it has a lot to do with how people feel when they come to the city. I get a lot of comments even with the small things we're doing, like, "I didn't know Richmond was like this?" or "When I think about Richmond, I think about ... war, monuments." When I talk about Richmond, I don't talk about the past as much as I do the present. I'm just as proud of the fact that we're one of the most tattooed cities as I am about Monument Avenue.

Let's talk about downtown. Do you feel that taxpayers have been served well by the CenterStage renovation and expansion?

I think that CenterStage is a vital part of any city that wants to be a major city. I think you need to have a major concert hall. I think it says that the city is interested in all kinds of artistic expression, so we provided an excellent venue for ballet and opera and for the spoken word and all those kind of things. I'm very proud of what has happened. I didn't have a hand in it other than what we did in the General Assembly. (Jones served as a state delegate for 14 years.)

You now intend to give the CenterStage Foundation / RPAC $14 million and hand over the Landmark renovation to them.

It's the economic component. When "Lion King" was [at the Landmark], they sold $5 million worth of tickets. The economic impact was something like $20 million.

Perhaps, but according to a recent independent audit obtained by Style, CenterStage pays out three times what it takes in. And it has failed to provide an arts endowment for its resident companies. I'm trying to figure out how this particular entity's track record of achievement would inspire you to give it more money and responsibility.

I don't see it that way. I don't see giving it to them, I see giving it to the people of Richmond. I see it stoking the embers of energy that I see, bringing people to the city. I mean, I hear [people] sitting in restaurants saying, "I haven't gone downtown in 50 years." I'm talking about people — how shall I say it with the tape-recorder running — of another generation who have written Richmond off who are now recognizing that we have some aspects that can't be duplicated, replicated or created because they are unique to the urban experience.

But taxpayers won't be able to see what the CenterStage Foundation / RPAC is doing with our facilities. There is no public openness.

Whatever you, or anybody else, would want to know about the deal would be made public. I don't have any problem with it being made public, in terms of the city's contribution of $14 million into a $50 million deal. I think that's a pretty good return on our investment, and the building will revert back to the city [in 40 years].

click to enlarge The area may be trending younger and hipper, but Mayor Jones says that the CenterStage renovation has been instrumental in luring aging suburbanites back to downtown. "[People are] recognizing now that we have some aspects that can't be duplicated, replicated or created because they are unique to the urban experience."
  • The area may be trending younger and hipper, but Mayor Jones says that the CenterStage renovation has been instrumental in luring aging suburbanites back to downtown. "[People are] recognizing now that we have some aspects that can't be duplicated, replicated or created because they are unique to the urban experience."

Currently, the rents are so high at CenterStage that many of the performing arts groups can't afford to use it. What will you do to ensure that the CenterStage Foundation does what it is supposed to be doing with CenterStage before they are given anything else?

I'll be honest. I haven't focused on the performing arts groups at CenterStage. ... If there's an opportunity to have a conversation with the groups about some sort of endowment or foundation, I would be more than happy to sit down and have that. (Following the interview, the press office releases a statement saying that, under the deal, the mayor will be "actively involved" in choosing future members of the RPAC board.)

You said that you have confidence in CenterStage's ability to raise private money.

Yeah, for instance the Landmark is a $50 million deal. We're only putting in $14 million.

Its posted 990 [tax filing] shows that it had less than 17 total private contributions of $5,000 or more in a year, totaling $260,000. And it won't make its new [tax filings] available until after the Landmark deal comes up for a vote. What sort of safeguards have you installed to make sure it holds up its end of the bargain as far as private fundraising?

The {memorandum of understanding] is pretty specific and so I hope you'll have the opportunity to see that. I don't know if those documents are public or not. (Hawley, the mayor's press secretary, interjects to say that it isn't available because of the current budget talks.) There are going to be naming rights in this deal, and there are going to be tax credits in the deal and there will be philanthropy in the deal. ... We have assurances that the money will be there.

Meanwhile, many visual artists around town have been talking about the red tape they have to go through with the city. With the success of the G40 Art Summit and the Street Art Festival, would you be in favor or expanding or empowering the city's Public Art Commission to better facilitate between the city and artists?

Well, I think that any type of city or government is inherent with bureaucratic red tape, so if you think that isn't always going to be an issue ...

I'm interested in sitting down and talking to the artists. I'd like to figure out what the barriers are and see what is reasonable and what can be done. That's probably an excellent role for me to play. So if someone wants to facilitate that, I'd be more than happy to do it.

Who do we blame for the Art 180 "What Do You Stand For" controversy? Why were permits granted and then taken away from a children's arts project?

I really don't think that it was intentional; it wasn't meant to hurt anybody. I think the people who gave out the permits [did so] under the auspices of a different permitting process and then when it came to everyone's attention ... I mean, this is a city, sometimes it is difficult.

Why couldn't the art have stayed up for its full run? It was the city's fault, not the kids'.

I'm glad that it turned out the way it did, that the residents on Monument felt strongly enough about it to put the art in their yards. That was wonderful. But it [would have set a] precedent that could have come back to bite us later on in terms of free speech and free expression. That was one of the main concerns. We had already had some issues with people wanting to use public property for different kinds of things. ... So I was happy with the resolution but sorry it happened.

click to enlarge A controversial decision to pull Art 180's "What Do You Stand For" exhibit off Monument Avenue medians became a public-relations disaster for Jones and his administration. "It [would have set a] precedent that could have come back to bite us later on in terms of free speech and free expression. That was one of the main concerns."
  • A controversial decision to pull Art 180's "What Do You Stand For" exhibit off Monument Avenue medians became a public-relations disaster for Jones and his administration. "It [would have set a] precedent that could have come back to bite us later on in terms of free speech and free expression. That was one of the main concerns."

There are numerous organizations, including the Greater Richmond Chamber, that are hyping Richmond as a creative capital. How is your administration helping to leverage or encourage this? Or is it just hype?

You know, city government can't be all things to all people. Our job is to provide the environment and the infrastructure to cause things to happen. With the chamber, our position is to push them, and to cooperate with them, and collaborate with them. As mayor, I want the creative class to thrive and so I see my role is to be a cheerleader. ...

I think we are on the right track with that. We continue to make contributions to CultureWorks ... we're working on Broad Street to make that an arts district; put into economic development tools and mechanisms that will make it easier for people to establish themselves on Broad Street. In fact, Art 180 is one of the groups that will be getting a loan from us. And we've invested in places like the Hippodrome and MansionFive26 to make sure that happened. I've been knocking around Richmond for decades and the Hippodrome's been on the table for decades.

It's nice that they are starting to have actual public attractions at the Hippodrome, more than a year after it opened.

But even without the attractions, they had people coming in there by the hundreds, hanging out and partying, drinking and dancing and whatever they do. It really has become a drawing card for Second Street. With the development going on on the other side of the street, we actually have a shot at bringing Second Street back. And now, as you said, they have things happening there.

Richmond has one of the best arts schools in the country and one of the largest universities in the state [Virginia Commonwealth University]. Forty percent of those students stay here for some time after they graduate. What are you doing to make sure that Richmond retains those young people and that they live and create right here?

I think that my Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee is one thing that we're moving toward ... healthy lifestyles. The younger generation embraces bike paths, and the [World Road Cycling Championship] is coming. I think that the entertainment scene is one that is going to grow. ... We have to make sure it grows in a way that is kind of orderly so that we can co-exist with it, and we're excited about the Shockoe Plan and the renovation of Main Street Station, which is going to be a major attraction down there. I look at the Manchester area and what's going on there and it excites me. We need to make sure young people can find affordable housing there.

Your administration has done a nice job of filling in budget gaps during the past few years. Why can't we get rid of our admissions tax, which is a real drain on the local music and arts scenes?

I'm not trying to institute any new taxes, but I'm also not trying to get rid of any of our revenue.

Does that go for the so-called temporary meals-tax increase as well?

You can lump it all together. I mean, these are tough, tough times.

When the chamber took its intercity visit to Austin, Texas, with you in attendance, do you think that your group properly studied that city's music scene and how important it can be to economic development?

I don't know about "properly studied." It was only a day and a half, two days. Studying is one thing but experiencing it is another. We experienced it enough to know that the vibe there was created by an innovative cloud, people who were interested in the arts, excited about it, geeked about it.

You were quoted saying that you didn't want Richmond to be "weird" like Austin — was that supposed to be a joke?

It was a joke. If we can think of another [word] for "weird," great. I think we need to have something that defines what really is going on here ... kids' skateboarding, the ice skating.

There have been a lot of music-related controversies since you've been in office. Like the unconstitutional noise ordinance, restrictions on dancing and the nightclub ordinance, where nightclub owners weren't given the proper paperwork to comply. What would you say to people who argue that Richmond is at war with its music scene?

I would disagree with that completely. I think that the noise ordinance was perhaps inartfully drawn, and we knew that, and I think we are on record as stating that it was a work in progress.

Are you happy with the noise ordinance we currently have?

It's a work in progress. I think it's inartfully drawn and it will be a long time before it is right.

What's wrong with it, in your view?

Procedurally, there is no process in there for how to [enforce] the actions that are taken; it's difficult to measure what is defined as noise. Our position is to find the proper balance between the people who like [music] and the people who don't. We don't want to run away the people who don't like it or the people who do.

Why is it so hard to get this right?

[Laughs] It's like baking a cake. Sometimes if you take it out too soon, it's not going to taste good. So if you are going to bake a cake, you better let it stand alone until it's ready. And there were some people [on City Council] who took it out too soon. S

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