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FINE ARTS: As local institutions continue to transform, a look at some early highlights of the visual arts season 

click to enlarge “Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa” opens Nov. 10 at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A site-specific  installation by Rashid Johnson opens on Oct. 17 at the ICA.

Paul Lois/The Virginia Museum of FIne Arts

“Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa” opens Nov. 10 at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A site-specific installation by Rashid Johnson opens on Oct. 17 at the ICA.

Fall in Richmond. It means the return of cooler temperatures, back-to-school calendars, and the height of the annual art season, which slows down during the hot summer months while vacationers are on holiday or immersed in outdoor activities.

This year the visual art community in Richmond seems to be at a crossroads.

Don't get me wrong, many things mark Richmond as a solid art town: art nonprofits and new ones that pop up annually, an encyclopedic and contemporary art museum, traveling exhibitions, internationally-recognized guest lecturers and visiting artists, many artists living in the city and metro area, art educational spaces, an arts university, local patrons, long-standing galleries that thrive decade after decade, and inclusive programming that widens the visual arts audience and makes it accessible to all people.

And this fall, two longstanding art institutions celebrate birthdays: Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts— whose new dean Shawn Brixey has yet to make big changes — turns 90 while 1708 Gallery commemorates four decades.

But what plans are being set by these leaders and others for the next decade? Each should be considering innovations for the future while critically assessing traditions, their particular brand and the regional, national, and global debates in the visual arts.

Then there are questions concerning the immediate future with the potential of long-term impacts: Current art fair isn't happening again this October, though organizers are hopeful it will continue, and the RVA Critical Art Writing Program is also on hold after founder Lauren Ross was appointed the executive director of Laumier Sculpture Park in St. Louis. The Institute for Contemporary Art should announce a new executive director soon, who likely will bring a new vision, to replace interim director Joe Seipel sometime by the end of the year. The Public Art Commission, which had its budget slashed by City Council, will hold a vote on Sept. 24 for adoption of a master plan to fund public art projects in the city, though it's unclear whether there are sufficient funds to cover pending and planned projects and the public art coordinator job is vacant.
We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, make sure to check out:

click to enlarge Willie Anne Wright, “The Lovers,” at Candela Books and Gallery’s First Friday.
  • Willie Anne Wright, “The Lovers,” at Candela Books and Gallery’s First Friday.

1 – September's First Fridays. Sometimes First Fridays can seem a little stale, but not Sept. 7—the galleries are bringing their A games to kick off this year's season. Begin at the arts district and then hop over to Shockoe Bottom, VCU, and Main Street: For a complete listing, check out First Fridays on Facebook. Make sure to visit the Anderson Gallery, which offers work by Caitlin Cherry, who has been tapped by artist Kara Walker — known for her charged installations of silhouettes — as an emerging artist worth watching. Reynolds Gallery has a three-part exhibition that includes neon sculptures by Esther Ruiz, another emerging artist who makes spectacular work. Willie Anne Wright exhibits a new body of work at Candela Books and Gallery. At nearly 100 she continues to make compelling photographs. The list goes on.

click to enlarge A site-specific  installation by Rashid Johnson opens on Oct. 17 at the ICA.
  • A site-specific installation by Rashid Johnson opens on Oct. 17 at the ICA.

2 – "Provocations: Rashid Johnson." The Institute for Contemporary Art debuted its inaugural exhibition "Declaration" to much fanfare and critical acclaim. Now comes the tough slog of building a strong reputation one successful exhibition at a time. Up next is "Provocations: Rashid Johnson," a site-specific commissioned installation that opens Oct. 17.

3 – "Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa." Following the success of "Napoleon: Power and Splendor," the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' next blockbuster exhibition is "Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa," which opens Nov. 10 and features 130 masks from the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries alongside films, photographs, and musical instruments. The museum has an excellent permanent collection of African art that the curator of African art, Richard Woodward, has been acquiring since 1977 and for three months visitors can see an even greater view of African art and culture.

4 – Glenstone Museum and "Rachel Whiteread." For those seeking a weekend or day trip, look no farther than Washington. On Oct. 4, Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, unveils the Pavilions, a museum of modern and contemporary art that houses the collection of Emily Wei Rales and Mitchell P. Rales, and at 204,000 square feet the new building offers nearly seven times the space of the existing 30,000-square-foot museum. I visited Glenstone in 2017 while the Pavilions were under construction and was blown away by the collection, knowledgeable staff, grounds and overall experience. Tours are free but visitors must reserve tickets online. Afterwards head to the National Gallery of Art's East Wing to see "Rachel Whiteread," a major survey of the British sculptor's work that opens Sept. 16. Whiteread came to fame in the 1990s with works like "Ghost" (1990), a plaster cast of a living room, which explores forgotten spaces, personal and collective memory, and monuments.

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