September 04, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story



Despite budget cuts, arts organizations keep chugging ahead.

Peggy Baggett, executive director of The Virginia Commission for the Arts — which provides funding to state arts organizations and nonprofits — says the commission has already taken steps to respond to this announcement, but because 90 percent of its budget comes in the form of grants, many of these grants will now not be awarded in full. In July, the commission awarded more than $4.1 million to a total of 420 arts organizations and schools across the state. In Richmond, awards included $9,000 to 1708 Gallery, $7,800 to Firehouse Theater Project, $101,000 to Richmond Ballet and $99,000 to Richmond Symphony, among many others.

"We're going to do our best to honor all grant awards, but if the budget cuts are that deep [15 percent] we will have to suspend second payment on grants that have already been awarded," Baggett says.

But there is some good news. Many of our city's arts organizations are doing well and some will even move forward with expansion plans this fall.

The Visual Arts

The visual-arts community continues to thrive. Stephanie Micas, executive director of the Arts Council of Richmond, recently called a meeting of leaders in the visual arts "to begin a visual arts-cultural planning process," much like the brainstorming that took place several years ago for the performing arts and that resulted in the plan for the performing-arts complex. "It may be that [the visual-arts community] just needs a big PR plan," she says, "I don't know, I can't tell you what the results will be." But one thing she is certain of is that after an analyst is hired and the arts community is polled, "this study will produce tangible, achievable results for the arts community." One idea discussed at the meeting was whether a need exists for affordable housing and studio space for artists, Micas says.

"VCU is a major stimulus to all of this," she says. "That's the benefit of having a major arts school in your town."

Bev Reynolds has also responded to this growing pool of talented visual artists by expanding her gallery — a move she attributes to local talent as well as national artists being brought in by VCU's school of the arts. The Reynolds Gallery plans to complete its expansion in time for an October opening. (See story on pg. 25)

Meanwhile, The Valentine Richmond History Center moves forward with a $1 million project to restore the sculptor Edward V. Valentine's studio, which sits on the museum's grounds. More than 200 of the sculptor's works — including the plaster cast from his famous "Recumbent Lee" that adorns the former general's grave site — are being carefully restored and will be placed on exhibit within the studio when the project is complete in March 2003, according to the project's manager, Ken Myers.

"Two things are rare about this project," Myers says. "Edward Valentine is a major Richmond artist — when he returned to Richmond in 1865 from his training in Europe he was part of a generation of artists that helped rebuild the culture of the city. The second being that there are very few surviving 19th-century arts studios that are open to the public."

Other notable achievements for the visual arts community include the growing success of the First Friday art walks and the planned expansions of the Hand Workshop and the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

The Performing Arts

The big news in performing arts has been the proposed $105 million Performing Arts Complex. In addition to major private fund-raising efforts, state money has been requested. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore turned down a $50 million request; and more recently, Gov Mark Warner rejected a $30 million request. Still, Virginia Performing Arts Foundation CEO and President Brad Armstrong is far from discouraged.

"The governor is in support of the project," Armstrong says, explaining that those proposals "were ideas of a mechanism to fund the complex" with public funds. The foundation is now looking into other ways to request the money, Armstrong says: "We're working with the governor on ways that the commonwealth might support our project, but also on ways that may not cost the state as much in these difficult times."

The foundation still plans to pay for most of the project with private funds, he says.

The plan for the complex consists of four parts: renovating the Landmark, Empire and National theaters, plus work on the Thalhimers block. This block will consist of a renovated and expanded Carpenter Center, a new 600-seat theater for a professional theater group (whether that be TheatreVirginia or another company), a 250-seat black-box theater, and other community spaces for even smaller performances.

In the event that state money continues to be denied to the foundation, Armstrong says the show will go on — but it might not be so elaborate.

"That certainly wouldn't stop us," he says. "We'd scale back and reconstitute the project appropriately and do the things that we can do. We'd focus on the Thalhimers block because that's the most important part, but we'd have to do some work on the Landmark because that will serve as the transitional home [for groups like the symphony] while we're working on the Thalhimers block."

So far, the project's completion date has been pushed back only a couple of months, from fall to January of 2007, and the foundation has continued as planned. On Sept. 9 it will announce its selection of an architect; the first phase of design work is expected to be finished by the end of February. The foundation has already established the capital-campaign leadership, kicked off a campaign among the 65-member board, purchased the building next to the Empire Theater, and established a new community development authority to invest in parking and street scapes.

"We desperately need it," Armstrong says, emphasizing the complex's potential as a revenue generator for the city. "We have studied complexes around the country, gotten the support of arts community, business community, legislators. … We cannot allow the center of the capital of this commonwealth to look like crap. We must make it great, and we are."

TheatreVirginia's future, however, is not looking so promising. With its increasing debt ($500,000 at last count) and expected loss of a home in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts after this season, the theater plans to significantly scale back its future seasons as well as its staff.

On the other hand, the Richmond Symphony, which also will be losing a home when renovations close the Carpenter Center from May 2004 to June 2007, is actively working to reach new groups and be accepted in new settings.

"It's a challenge for us to go out and about to try and attract new audiences," says Executive Director David Fisk, who joined the symphony in June. "We can't fight the move against downtown until the performing-arts complex is built."

As a result, the symphony will play in the counties and even conduct a two-week residency in a middle school this year, all in an attempt to attract nontraditional concert audiences.

Another organization worth mentioning is the Barksdale Theater, which at 50 is the oldest theater company in town. After joining with Theater IV last year, Artistic Director Bruce Miller plus the new board and management in one year have reduced the organization's debt from approximately $160,000 to $70,000.

"Since the ascension of [the touring series] Broadway Under the Stars, the leadership at Theater IV has believed strongly that the future of professional theater in greater Richmond was dependent upon independent companies summoning up the courage to work collaboratively," Miller says. "Sometimes you can get more done with fewer funds if you work cooperatively than if you work competitively, and I think that's the bottom line."

The Modlin Center also has excelled in its six years under the leadership of Kathy Panoff. Stepping forward to pick up some slack left by the Fast/Forward series, the University of Richmond's performing-arts center will present more than 30 events from well-respected artists as part of the Modlin Great Performances Series, including performance artist Laurie Andersen, a past Fast/Forward performer, plus an impressive roster of world, jazz and classical acts this fall. S



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