Arts and Culture: Portrait of Opportunity

When you paint a picture of power in Richmond’s world of arts and culture, you can’t do it without shades of green.

Developers and city boosters are more visibly embracing the idea that enhancing cultural options in the city yields returns — creating jobs, retaining residents, boosting local creative talent, improving blighted areas and helping spur the long-awaited revitalization of downtown.

For years, nonprofits and arts institutions have relied on support from philanthropists and such corporate giants as Altria and Dominion Resources. While their donations remain critical during a rocky economic recovery, when federal grants are sparse, the dynamics of development are changing because of technology and do-it-yourself types finding nontraditional paths to success.

Increasingly, Richmond’s cultural identity is being forged by such grass-roots events as the RVA Street Art Festival, Fall Line Fest and Richmond Mural Project, the latter of which is changing the way parts of the city look with work from international artists and little oversight, a debate yet to play out.

Online crowd sourcing offers glimpses of a world in which art strives and succeeds on its own merits, a direct partnership between creators and their audiences. The giant venue-management company SMG may be the conduit to most of the major entertainment that Richmond audiences see. But an environment also thrives in which a group of friends can bypass those avenues — raising $70,000 to bring the Foo Fighters back to town, or giving artist Noah Scalin the means to publish a glossy art-project book with Chop Suey Books.

Richmond’s most successful, creative and sustainable arts endeavors often come from bottom-up efforts such as the First Fridays Art Walk. Top-down efforts, such as CenterStage, have had more mixed results and a less than vibrant schedule of programming after earning public tax dollars on promises to provide more opportunities for local arts organizations.

To better connect with those groups, CenterStage formed the association of resident companies. It’s led by Ryan Ripperton, executive director at the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, known as SPARC, who’s also overseen that nonprofit’s emergence as a hub for local performing arts education.

Another one of the city’s power hubs, Venture Richmond, has been called “too big to fail,” with Mayor Dwight Jones as the president of its board filled with corporate leaders. Subsidized by the city, the nonprofit has helped build popular events such as Dominion Riverrock, Friday Cheers and the massive Richmond Folk Festival. It stepped into a development debate in September, flexing its muscle by pushing for a Shockoe Bottom ballpark. It also threatened the end of the Folk Festival unless its new Tredegar Green amphitheater could be built, amid protests by neighbors and preservationists who felt it tampered with the vestiges of the historic James River and Kanawha Canal.

Virginia Commonwealth University continues to spread its fiery black-and-gold wings through downtown, enveloping whole blocks and making them more recognizable for students. The school is graduating 675 art students a year, and increasingly, a substantial portion is choosing to stay.

The year’s biggest confluence of traditional power players happened at the June groundbreaking for VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, on its way toward a fundraising goal of $35 million. Its anticipated opening in late 2016 will mark Richmond’s entry into the international contemporary art world, just as it physically reshapes the area of Broad and Belvedere with world-class architecture.

Insiders are reserved when asked about who controls the scene. Most areas of the arts face increased competition for the same resources, and few people want to step on the toes of benefactors. Others tout less-traditional power players — Emily Smith, director of 1708 Gallery, Marlene Paul with Art180, Mike Jones with James River Film Fest, Ward Tefft at Chop Suey Books, Stephen Lecky and his Fall Line Fest and John Bryan with Culture Works — until he retires in September.

There can be a bridge between big, institutionally led projects and creatives working at the grass roots — and this might be the key to arts and culture players looking to build power. They also can inspire one another.

“We’re looking at the ICA as a real opportunity to elevate the interest in contemporary art in the city and challenge local artists to create new work,” 1708’s Smith says, noting that the lack of a challenging environment can send artists packing.

Richmond’s most successful organizations are characterized by strong partnerships — the vision of committed artistic directors commingling with deep-pocketed board members and their connections. Take the respected Richmond Ballet, which appears on an extended climb of accolades and expansion. It heads to China in the fall, just as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts launches its exclusive artistic exhibit “Forbidden Cities” in a rare exchange with Beijing’s imperial palace.

History museums are merging and finding new ways to market themselves, just as some theater companies are forming new alliances. Local community radio station WRIR-FM 97.3 continues to fill a vital role, airing alternative voices and promoting the local music scene, which seems to be blossoming with more small and midsized clubs.

After losing its visionary leader, Dave Brockie, Gwar is opening a restaurant in Jackson Ward sure to become a cultural oddity and attraction. It’s all part of the band’s diabolical diversification plan for Slave Pit Inc. to retain its artistic roots — a truly original local arts movement still spewing on its own creative terms nearly 30 years later.

What’s missing is someone who will build power by amassing the creatives. Things changed big time in Austin, Texas, when local bands organized and lobbied for their causes. Richmond’s CultureWorks found approximately 1,000 bands active in Richmond — defined as playing a half a dozen or more paid gigs a year. But they haven’t rallied their resources and organized, creating a power vacuum.

It isn’t how many lists Richmond’s name ends up on, or the international artists it plays host to. It’s the content — how much intriguing and creatively challenging work is produced locally that will determine the scene’s vitality and quality. The pot is stirring. But who will take hold of the scene and float to the top?

The List

1. William Royall and Pamela Royall


These collectors of big-time contemporary art are driving forces behind two of the community’s most ambitious fine arts institutions. Now partially retired, both husband and wife are focusing even more on the art scene. Bill Royall serves as chairman of VMFA’s board. The couple also contributed $5 million to the ICA campaign and serve as co-chairs. One insider calls them the modern-day Sydney and Frances Lewis.

2. Joe Seipel

VCU School of the Arts

He founded 1708 Gallery and co-founded the former Texas-Wisconsin Border Café before taking over as dean of the VCU sculpture department, helping lead it to its top ranking in the country. Now dean of the School of the Arts, Seipel, and increasingly ICA director Lisa Freiman, are strong drivers of VCU’s heavy artistic imprint that only continues to grow through the city.

3. Steve and Kathie Markel

Vice Chairman
Markel Corp.

As co-chairs of the committee to raise millions of dollars for the ICA, the Markels and the Markel Co. gave the lion’s share of money for the project to break ground — hence the reason VCU decided to name the building the Markel Center. Although their philanthropy to the ICA and other institutions is low-key, you can bet they’ll have a prominent voice in its future.

4. Charlie Agee

Director of Corporate Contributions
Altria Group

Agee plays a significant role in deciding which local arts groups will be invited to apply for money from the tobacco giant and owner of Philip Morris USA — which can always use good vibes. Altria most recently gave $10 million for the naming rights to the Landmark Theater, allowing for renovations that will bring higher profile acts. In the fall, Altria’s the presenting sponsor of “Forbidden City,” VMFA’s exclusive exhibit of imperial treasures from the palace in Beijing. Such exhibits, and the former Picasso exhibit that Altria sponsored, help raise Richmond’s profile on the national arts scene.

5. Jack Berry

Executive Director
Venture Richmond

The nonprofit Venture Richmond has operated behind the scenes for years, but this year came out flexing, getting behind plans for the Shockoe ballpark and pushing for a new amphitheater, Tredegar Green. Berry became the public face of the efforts and has close ties with political and business leaders throughout the city.

6. Pamela Reynolds

Board Member
Richmond Ballet

An idiosyncratic fashion icon and longtime promoter of the arts, Reynolds has served on just about every significant arts board in town for 40 years. After rotating off the Valentine Richmond History Center board, she turned her considerable energy and fundraising prowess to the Richmond Ballet’s “Road to China,” part of the governor’s push for cultural exchange. As evidenced at a recent fundraiser for the upcoming Asian engagement at Fat Dragon restaurant, she still works a room like no other.

7. Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway

Artistic Director and Managing Director
Virginia Repertory Theatre

Virginia Rep has become one of the leading performing arts organizations in Central Virginia, serving more than 500,000 adults and children at four venues and in schools across Virginia and 32 states. It also employs a sizable chunk of the area’s working theater professionals. Miller and Whiteway have used an entrepreneurial business sense to create an organization that allows professional artists to live and work in Richmond, creating locally, rather than shipping in professional theater. With help from patron saints Sara Belle and Neil November, they renovated the Empire Theatre, which has become an anchor of the arts district.

8. Dolly Vogt

Regional Manager
SMG Richmond

Vogt helms all of the SMG venues — Altria Theater, Richmond Coliseum, CenterStage, Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center and RVA on Ice — having the ultimate say on programming for each. Some credit her with slowly putting Richmond back on the concert map. She also gets to decide the rental rates for local arts groups, which have been higher than many would like at CenterStage. And State Fair organizers might not have been too happy when she booked the country group Rascal Flatts at Redskins training camp the same weekend as the fair’s opening.

9. Ed Trask

Visual Artist
Organizer, RVA Street Arts Festival

Trask’s artistic imprint is all over Richmond. The godfather of the local mural scene is a symbolic link between the hipsters and the squares, and his name recognition tends to lend street cred to many local projects. When the ICA broke ground in June, officials made sure Trask and friends were throwing down some paint in front of a tent filled with millionaires. He also serves as a board member of the Visual Arts Center.

10. Heide Trepanier

Visual Artist
Organizer of Lovebomb

Talented painter Trepanier is helping revitalize Manchester with her participatory artistic community, Lovebomb. It feels straight out of a Fellini movie with occasional clowns, Puerto Rican puppet shows and honky-tonk square dancing. Her goal is to create a creative community and school outside of the capitalist market, and she’s providing an example for other local artists on how to free their imaginations, on their own terms.


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