New city art project on drawing board... 

Street Talk

New City Art Project on Drawing Board
Wilder portrait to hang in National Portrait Gallery
Freedom House seeks new dinner digs
Old hospital could make perfect home
New Capitol Square light poles anger preservationists
New City Art Project on Drawing Board

Public art can swell the chests of all that gaze upon it.

It can bridge the gap between unlike groups. It can inspire peace.

Take the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.

Could something that grand in scale, that reverent in tone, work in Richmond, where public art has sparked more divisiveness than harmony?

Some local art organizations say yes. So, too, does Mayor Tim Kaine.

During Religious Freedom Weekend 2000, hosted by the Council for America's First Freedom on Mayo Island Jan. 16, Kaine announced that Richmond might sponsor an international design competition to create a memorial to the innumerable slaves once traded out of Richmond.

Indicating the project would be a major work of civic art, Kaine acknowledged much grant money is needed, and the city will do its part to help raise what could be more than a million dollars.

"It's in the twilight stages," says Sally Bowring, coordinator for the city's 1 Percent for the Arts program. According to Bowring, the Public Art Commission, the Arts Council, the Black History Museum and the Hand Workshop have signed a letter of intent inquiring about a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. "As an informal group, we wrote to the [NEA] design department," explains Bowring "We won't know until Feb. 15 whether or not we've been invited to apply."

If awarded, the grant will provide community seed money to form a steering committee to research the feasibility of a large-scale civic art project, most likely to be constructed in or near downtown Richmond.

Bowring cautions that it's far too early to predict an outcome. But if all goes according to plan, she hopes that any artist with a compelling idea for public art will respond to the call for entries. "We've started the process to start the process," says Bowring "and it's very, very inclusive."

Brandon Walters

Wilder portrait to hang in National Portrait Gallery

Conjure an image of George Washington and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of the first president is likely to come to mind. The same thing happens with Abraham Lincoln and Matthew Brady's photographs. One hundred years from now, when people remember Douglas Wilder, Loryn Brazier's portrait may become the iconic image associated with the nation's first black elected governor.

And like Stuart's painting and Brady's photograph, Brazier's Wilder portrait of the former governor also will be housed in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

The Wilder portrait was unveiled last week at a dinner at Virginia Commonwealth University's Stuart C. Siegel Center celebrating the 10th anniversary of Wilder's inauguration. Frederick Voss, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, was on hand to accept the painting into the museum's collection of more than 18,000 objects.

"[Wilder] represents a significant stride and benchmark in our social history," Voss says. "[His election] is a watershed in the history of American racial relations."

In addition to its historical value, the National Portrait Gallery also considered the artistic merits of the painting. Voss calls the Wilder portrait "handsome," then adds, "Of course, he's a handsome man."

Brazier painted the portrait of Wilder this summer after being introduced to him by Grace Harris, distinguished professor at the Center for Public Policy, where Wilder holds the same title. "[Harris] asked me if there was anybody I would like to paint and I said [Wilder]," Brazier explains.

Harris helped arrange a meeting between Brazier and Wilder and they discussed the portrait. "We wanted him to look like he was contemplating something serious — a bill, or something of that sort," Brazier says.

When the portrait was completed, Brazier donated it to VCU and suggested to Harris, who headed the planning committee for the Wilder inauguration anniversary celebration, that it be donated to the Smithsonian. Dr. Eugene Trani, VCU president, then wrote to the National Portrait Gallery to offer the painting.

Voss explains that although the painting has been accepted by National Portrait Gallery, it will not be formally admitted into the museum's collection until 10 years after Wilder's death. But that doesn't mean it won't be exhibited before then. Currently the museum is closed for renovation and is not expected to open until the summer of 2003. Voss says that when it reopens, it is likely to have a room dedicated to 20th-century civil rights. "It would very aptly be put on view there," he says.

Brazier, who has been painting for 15 years, is "just thrilled" about the honor. "Obviously it is a really good thing for me," she says, "but it is a really important thing for Gov. Wilder to be represented there," she says.

Jessica Ronky Haddad

Freedom House seeks new dinner digs

Regulars have dined there for years. Some, up to six nights a week. There's often a line, but no one's ever turned away.

But now the situation's getting a little out of hand. And it has everything to do with the people involved: They're at risk. Risk of unnecessary injury.

After more than 10 years of serving dinner six nights a week from the former Daily Planet location at Belvidere and Main Street, Freedom House ministry is taking suggestions, and offers, for a new place to host its Evening Meals program.

Begun in 1983, Freedom House, a non-profit, non-denominational ministry at 1201 Hull St., is known for its work as a transitional homeless shelter. Nightly, it houses up to 40 people who hope never to find their way back to the streets. But sometimes, they do.

Those who do, and others - not all of whom are homeless - know where to go for a hot meal. But the former Daily Planet facility has fallen into such disrepair that they'd gladly relocate, as would the volunteers from more than 175 churches and civic organizations that prepare the meals daily offsite - 365 days a year.

"We sorely need to get out of there," says Melanie Costello, volunteer coordinator and director of marketing for Freedom House. "There are no knobs on the stove," says Costello. But what's more, she adds, "sometimes the elevator works, sometimes the heat works; sometimes it doesn't." And with up to 200 people going up and down rickety steps nightly, there's an accident waiting to happen.

"We need a bright, safe place for our volunteers and guests that has a commercial kitchen and can seat up to 50 people," explains Costello. Freedom House has the money to spend for a new location, but, according to Costello, it's not that easy.

Businesses and residents won't likely welcome a food program for the homeless, and sites away from the city create the need for transportation. "We're willing to do whatever we can to make it accessible to the homeless," says Costello. "We need some downtown people who have some clout who care about our mission."

Last year, Freedom House served 46,800 dinners on a budget of $80,000.

"Freedom House was faith-based, which was great, but we need to be financially based," concedes Costello, in order to continue feeding the hungry. And finding a new location to serve hot meals six nights a week is the first order of business. "We're trying to be proactive," says Costello, "and move before a tragedy occurs."

— Brandon Walters

Old hospital could make perfect home

Since Bon Secours closed its facility at Richmond Memorial Hospital, Richmonders have wondered what would move into the stately North Side building.

The Lutheran church may soon have an answer.

"We've been looking into the possibility of building a retirement facility," says Ray Rothermel, a member of the church's steering committee, created three years ago to scout out locations suitable for a program supported by the Lutheran church.

"We've been trying to find a site and establish a plan," says Rothermel.

"The Richmond Memorial Foundation, I understand, contacted someone on our selection committee," explains Rothermel, "to ask if we'd be interested in being given the building." But he concedes the process is a complicated one, complicated by tenants - doctors whose offices have been there for years — that members of Rothermel's committee are in no hurry to rush. "We're a long, long, long way from deciding," says Rothermel. "This gives us an opportunity to express an interest in it."

That interest would likely perk up the ears of Richmond's growing community of seniors.

With old Richmond neighborhoods like Ginter Park and Bellevue offering century-old shade and comfort, the North Side is a natural choice for retirement living. The charm of the area and its rooted past has helped secure the success of retirement communities such as The Hermitage, Imperial Plaza and Westminster-Canterbury.

Another facility would be in good company.

Virginia Lutheran Homes already has retirement facilities in Virginia Beach and Roanoke, says Dick Hogan, chairman of the board of trustees for Virginia Lutheran Homes. Hogan says it's too early to talk about particulars, but the former hospital, he notes, might be a perfect fit. "We're engaged in serious study of the location."

Brandon Walters

New Capitol Square light poles anger preservationists

Controversy over the replacement of several dozen cast iron light poles in Capitol Square with green fiberglass replicas threatens to tarnish other renovation efforts that recently restored much of the square's gemlike quality.

Groups that have advised the state Department of General Services' refurbishment of the Capitol, governor's mansion and other Capitol Square treasures say the controversy stems from a failure by the department to consult them on the poles project before it purchased the replacement poles last year.

"At no point has the need to replace the lights been discussed," wrote Richard Ford, chairman of the state's art and architecture review board, to Department of General Services Director Donald Williams on Jan. 10.

The old poles have been coming out and the new ones going in for about a month. Calder Loth, senior architectural historian at the Department of Historic Resources, another oversight group, says he also was unaware of the project until recently, and members of the Capitol Square Preservation Council privately condemn the new poles, which they first encountered last month on a tour of the capitol grounds with a General Services representative.

"We were told it was a done deal" and that complaining would be futile, a member of the council says. It passed a resolution Jan. 18 calling on the state "to move these lamp poles and globes to a secure storage facility until a decision on their possible reinstallation can be made."

For now the poles are piled behind the state finance building, and their fate is uncertain. Williams says he is "perplexed" about the groups' dismay and wants to speak with them about it. "We take it very seriously and we're very concerned" about preservation efforts, he says, citing a long list of such projects in the past two years. Williams also defends the new poles as more attractive than their 1940s- and 50s-vintage predecessors, which were rusting and, some cases, so decrepit as to be "conducting electricty" and posing a safety hazard. He and a Capitol Square policeman last week also said the new poles provide better lighting and thus increase safety in the square.

As for aesthetic considerations, he says, "these poles are the exact duplicate" of their predecessors. However, Ford's letter states "[t]he replacement poles and lamps are clearly inferior to the ones being removed. They are lacking in precise detail and finish quality and in no way can they be considered historic. Their placement distracts from the superior quality and attention to detail that has always been present on Capitol Square."

Rob Morano

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