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Media General showcases local artists in its new Franklin Street headquarters. 

Patron of the Arts

The art scene in Richmond has traditionally been a little like the sound of one hand clapping. That one hand exciting the air around it is the creative populace of the city. Virginia's capital city is full of exceptional and prolific artists with national reputations, whose work is celebrated and sought in larger urban areas. Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts has received national acclaim for its visual arts curricula, and its well-educated offspring can be found laboring in their back street studios and suburban homes. However, everyone complains that art patronage in Richmond has been a bit sluggish catching hold. A few citizens, most notably Sidney and Frances Lewis, have demonstrated their commitment to the art of our lifetime and set the challenge to other Richmonders. But until recently, it was generally the come-heres who saw the point.

But downtown on Franklin Street, the new Media General headquarters has been quietly helping to further the patronage cause. Recently undertaking the process of commissioning art for its impressive new building, in addition to implementing an original-art purchasing strategy, it has provided the community with a respectable endorsement of its artists, and supplied its employees and visitors an inspiring Alcazar of visual satisfaction.

"We wanted to design an appropriate place for a significant art collection from the outset," explains Marshall Morton, Media General's senior vice president. "In planning our facility, we used the rough estimates already established by City Hall, the James Center and Riverfront Plaza, looked at how they developed a budget and what that budget provided them." Media General also relied on the professional guidance of two art consultants, Interior Planners and Jack Blanton Fine Arts.

The company organized an art committee to include interested employees, and the selection process began after a year of living in the new building. The resulting collection is a fairly inclusive, highly respectable and decorative assortment of landscape painters such as Dan Bartges, Ryan Russell, Kazhia Kolb and Joseph Burrough. Local favorite Nell Blaine is represented by her still-life work. Other artists include Margaret Buchanan, Fielding Archer and Nancy Witt.

Blanton, who presented the committee with most of the art selections, explains he wanted to introduce his client, "...to art that would enhance their lifestyle and help to expand their horizons, not just for the employees, but for their guests."

It is a freshly commissioned work that stands out, however, as a unique corporate undertaking for a highly important space — the fourth floor where the executive suites are located. Except for a small Nell Blaine still life, this circular reception area is the site of three commissioned works that take their theme from the ideas and historic eras of communication.

Rubin Peacock has on display an elegant abstract bronze titled "Mattaponi Memories" that incorporates Native-American chop marks along its patinated skin, drawing a subtle reference to an early Indian technique of mapping a trail or other significant site. The sculpture itself is nicely sited on a raised platform in the center of the space.

Robert Vander Zee was commissioned to produce a mural titled "The History of Communication." This he executes quite literally through a rectangular wide-angle lens on the communication industry in its stages through time, beginning with and dominated by a central bearded oracle. It offers an interesting merge of styles between the social realism technique of the WPA era and a modern-day fantasy illustration. This work is placed as a visual terminus over the reception desk.

To the left and right of these pieces remained the challenging walls. Curved to reiterate the convex shape of the floor below, they needed special consideration, and special artwork for the significance of the room. Betty Cleal, Media General's executive secretary, and an artist herself, and Blanton arrived at a solution simultaneously: a series of fabric constructions by Julia E. Pfaff. An archaeological landscape of time and its own natural methods of record keeping in a pieced and quilted image.

The problem with Pfaff? Her palette was all wrong, her structures were un-Richmondlike. Where she used amphora shapes to intimate the past, Richmond was used to relating to cannons. "I could not relate to some of her colors," Morton says as he shakes his head, smiling. The big issue for him was that lavender of hers. It just wasn't vernacular, it wasn't Richmond.

How did they resolve some basic concerns in order to arrive at the commissioned fiber pieces that everyone is now so entranced by? "We entered into a long dialogue where everyone grew in understanding from expressing their thoughts," Pfaff says. "I questioned them on what they liked about my approach. It helped them to put into words the aspects of my work that they had not considered as relative to their own ideas."

Following each conversation with Media General's art committee, Pfaff spent a great deal of time traveling around the Virginia countryside, sitting out in it, looking harder at it, understanding its shapes and colors, its changing moods. It worked. Especially one day in particular.

"Suddenly I had an epiphany while driving across the Lee Bridge," she says. "Suddenly the trees made sense." Before that moment, Pfaff had been drawing spruces into her schematic of the rolling Piedmont, the conifers that she grew up with in Ontario, Canada. These trees frustrated the argument that her scene was Virginia, until that view from the bridge of Virginia's native blue-green cedars offered its insight. "My palette has definitely expanded as a result of this collaborative process," she says. "It gave me a rare opportunity to grow quickly, and the economic incentive [of the commission] enabled me to experiment in ways I might not have otherwise been inclined."

The finished series of murals has five panels: Three describe Virginia's rural landscape, two make up an urban one. The landscapes are pieced together in tiny 1- and 2-inch sections made from 120 dye baths, with 70 etchings of grass, pottery shards, stone tools and bits of bone. There are still a few Pfaff-esque Roman arches to be found in her Media General mural, they happen to have supported an old Richmond train trestle.

And how does Media General feel about its venture into art commissions?

"It's been really interesting and fun to watch people's responses and get their interpretations," Morton says. "Our own knowledge has grown far beyond where we started."

"We would recommend this to any company," Cleal adds. "So many companies opt to hang commercial prints on their walls. From a corporate viewpoint it was so helpful to be working with all of the art professionals involved. It is a joy to come to
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