October 22, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Betsy Hart, 36, and Me’Kel Williams, 31 

Founding Executive Director and Assistant Director, Robinson Theater Community Arts Center

click to enlarge robinson.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Richmond is awash in historic buildings. But the most fascinating ones resonate with new life, made vibrant because of people, purpose and a meaningful connection between the old and the new.

The 82-year-old Robinson Theater, in North Church Hill, closed in the mid-’80s. But it took on new life as a community arts center in 2009.

Betsy Hart was 24 and recently married when she became the founding executive director of the venue. She and her husband bought a house in the neighborhood, and she got to work turning the theater into a beloved resource and cultural hub.

There was no roadmap for a venue like this in a similar situation, she recalls. No manual. Her mantra became, “We just have to try it.”

Through trial and error, surveys and going door-to-door talking with residents — an ongoing effort, 11 years later — she and her team have made the community arts center a neutral, welcoming and safe space.

“Really it’s just through relationships,” Hart says, and the neighborhood has taken ownership.

The arts center serves as a venue that can be rented. At its heart are classes designed to open the community to new, enriching experiences. Fitness, cooking, arts, ballet and hip-hop classes. Free family night movies.

Larger events include the free summer block party that draws about a thousand people, and the annual fall festival, coming up Oct. 27, which is expected to bring together 400 to 600 residents.

“We’re packed pretty much every day,” Hart says.

Classes are created to be accessible, affordable and fine-tuned to appeal to the neighbors — with about 200 of them enrolled as individual participants. Children also are welcomed from George Mason Elementary School, where a 100-percent scholarship is available.

The eclectic crowds are remarkable, says Me’Kel Williams, a fitness instructor who left a job at Capital One to become the center’s assistant director.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says.

“We say it’s beautiful diversity,” Hart adds.

Williams also made Church Hill his home, moving from North Side to be better connected with the neighborhood he serves. “It made sense,” he says. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”

He says he’s loved watching people from underserved and affluent areas of the neighborhood — sometimes who live across the street from each other — meet during activities at the center and plan gatherings after, building on their new relationships.

The Robinson Theater Community Arts Center grows through individual fundraising and a grantf from groups such as the Jackson Foundation. In 2020, Hart says, she hopes to welcome more arts groups from other areas of the city to work with the Robinson, bringing performances to the neighborhood and its people.

You won’t find it difficult to get in touch with her. She and her family, now expanded with two sons, live three blocks from the center.

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