Saying Goodbye 

At Shockoe Bottom Art Center’s final hurrah.

“Nine years is a very long time,” says the always-irrepressible Davis, letting out his trademark blast of hahaha laughter. “I’ve seen so many people come and go, I feel fortunate to have made it this long.”

At its height of popularity the center rented 140 studios to local and regional artists, who both worked and exhibited their art in the space. Come June 30, Shockoe Bottom’s residents will be forced to vacate their studios as the building’s landlord reclaims it to convert it to luxury apartments. Just a few blocks away, another small building that is home to artist studios is closing to make way for Starbucks.

“It’s always like this,” says potter Steven Glass, the juror for June’s All-Media show. “Artists always go into a corner of the city, make it a desirable place to be, and then a developer comes in and the artists get pushed out.”

Davis and Brizendine are moving their enterprise to downtown Petersburg, a place badly in need of the cultural boost a thriving arts center can provide. Plans are already in the works for two smaller studio communities to open in the Old Manchester area of Richmond. And although most, if not all, of SBAC’s artists eventually will find a home, few believe the spirit of the original center will ever be duplicated.

“What was wonderful about this was that it was a grassroots movement,” says one artist who maintained a studio at the center for a few years. There weren’t any rules, there wasn’t any elitism. It was almost something born of the Sixties.”

Although Davis poured a tremendous amount of work and time into the conversion of the building into studios and into daily business operations, he credits the arts community with making it a success.

What made Shockoe Bottom Arts Center so special? “People participating,” he says, as he stands in the center of the downstairs All-Media Gallery, surrounded by people who came to see the art, or just to wish him well. “If people didn’t participate there wouldn’t be anything to it,” he says. “It takes a lot of participation to get all the art on the walls, to get people to come and see it and purchase it. It is so much easier to stay home and sit on the couch [hahahahaha]. … It is such an optional thing — people have to choose to do it.”

As we’re talking, John Helfrich taps Davis on the shoulder and says, “I came down because I feel like I’m at a wake here.” He explains that his daughter took art classes at SBAC with former tenant artist Phyllis Biddle and was enormously influenced by the experience. “We’re sorry to see you go,” he says, “but I’m glad there’s new life going into Petersburg.”

Then Joe DeIlulio interrupts. He’s an artist from Williamsburg who has had a studio at the Center for the past three years. “In those three years I’ve developed a following of more than 250 patrons in the immediate area,” he says. “I have been painting for over 40 years. This is the worst thing that could happen to me, but I am following Rusty to Petersburg, and I would follow him to Alaska.” He pats Davis on the shoulder, a plastic cup of red wine waving dangerously in his other hand. “This man put this joint on the map.”

Davis laughs and grows reflective for a moment. He explains how earlier in the evening, one of the All-Media Show award-winners approached him as he was writing the checks for the monetary awards and thanked him for making her year. “This was bigger than the lottery for her,” he says. “Just little stuff like that is very rewarding — and that has happened here a lot.”

During its nine years, SBAC has hosted 99 opening receptions for its monthly juried All-Media shows, which, without a doubt, have showcased the most diverse selection of art offered by any gallery in Richmond.

“You would come to the shows, and there would be terrible stuff next to great stuff,” one local artist recalls. “That’s what made it so exciting.” Once an artist had work accepted into three All-Media shows, they were eligible for a solo show in the Center’s upstairs Tobacco Gallery. Many local artists received legitimacy — and a career jump-start — in this way.

“The one thing I really liked about this place was that it was not elitist,” says artist Rita MacNelly, who once maintained a studio at the Center with partner Beezy Bogan. “It is so important for everybody to be able to show their work. When [SBAC] first started, there was nowhere for people to show.”

This inclusive spirit filtered down to those who attended the Center’s openings. Everyone was welcome, and everyone came — young, old, couples and families, art collectors and those who, frankly, were probably just looking for free food and wine.

Brizendine recalls how Davis planned to serve water and crackers at the Center’s first art opening. “That seemed good to him,” she says, as she pokes fun at her son. Then she grows serious and points to Davis. “He has been the catalyst for everything,” she says. “We couldn’t do this — no way — without Rusty.”

I ask Brizendine how she is feeling about leaving Shockoe Bottom Arts Center behind after nine years of hard work. Surprisingly, she is unsentimental. “This building just transforms to the next building because the people are going to be there,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not the building; it’s the people and the energy. It keeps us all going. As artists, we look at one another and say, ‘They’re working, I guess I should be working, too.’ The energy concentrates. We really are a big energy factory.”

At the end of this month, when the lights go out at Shockoe Bottom Arts Center, Richmond will feel the void. S


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