Slowing Down: Looking back at the year’s visual arts scene finds reason for cheer 

click to enlarge The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University opened on April 21.

Scott Elmquist

The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University opened on April 21.

End-of-the-year lists are often passed over as trite or formulaic. There is, however, something lovely about pausing to consider carefully the best moments that joined up together in the last 12 months.

As part of the slowing-down movement, a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Shari Tishman, published "Slow Looking: the Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation" this year. If you can't guess, slow looking is "taking time to carefully observe more than the eye can see at first glance … [and] happens anywhere people take a generous amount of time to observe the world closely."

I can't say I do enough slow looking and usually when I do, my critical eye tends to notice the missteps rather than the successes. So, a prescription of slow looking and careful observation of the events from the past year is a welcome reminder to celebrate the good in the Richmond art scene.

When I slow down and think about 2018, here's what I remember:

1. The Institute for Contemporary Art opened. It was a bumpy ride leading up to the April 21 deadline—which had been delayed—and seemed insurmountable when Director Lisa Freiman announced she was splitting at the 11th hour. But the inaugural show happened and subsequent exhibitions, which opened in October, prove that the institute is an exhibition space to watch. Plus, the institute welcomed Director Dominic Willsdon, the former Leanne and George Roberts curator of education and public practice at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, this fall and he officially started this month. The horizon looks good.

click to enlarge “Untitled #5B (Krakatoa)” by Howardena Pindell
  • “Untitled #5B (Krakatoa)” by Howardena Pindell

2. "Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen" was a blockbuster worth seeing several times. Even if the exhibition was smaller than its debut in Chicago, "Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen" was a knockout at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Pindell's work is best viewed in person and the exhibition provided the full scope of her career from the small minimalist drawings to the large political work. Highlights included Pindell's "Separate But Equal Genocide/AIDS" (1991-1992) and an earlier work, "Autobiography: Air CS560" (1988).

3. New Acquisitions of African American art at VMFA. Speaking about African-American art at the institution, the museum is clearly living up to its initiative begun in 2015 to collect more African American art: In the last six months alone, it approved 24 new purchases by artists including painter Sam Gilliam and photographer Anthony Barboza. One of my favorite recent acquisitions is Glenn Ligon's "A Small Band" (2015), a large neon sculpture that spells out the words "blues, bruise, and blood" an homage to the true-life story of Daniel Hamm, one of six men black men wrongfully accused and convicted of murder in the 1960s.

4. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Richmond art scene. The Richmond art scene at its best is still pretty scrappy, even though we have an official arts district, a monthly gallery walk, a contemporary art institute, an encyclopedia art museum—and continual displays of do-it-yourself ethos. There are the new exhibition spaces, like the Institute for Contemporary Art or the Highpoint in Scott's Addition, and initiatives by existing nonprofits such as the educational programming at Studio Two Three or open studios at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. Also heartening are new festivals like the Richmond Sound Art Festival or Current Books and other creative endeavors, such as Mickael Broth's "Murals of Richmond" book and the many galleries that put together exciting new exhibitions each month or quarter. Likewise, there is a collaborative ethos and a can-do attitude amongst the artists who stay after graduation as they seek to maintain affordable studio spaces in the city's North Side or Manchester neighborhoods.

5. The wealth of art happenings. These include exhibitions, symposiums, film and art festivals, pop-up events, fashion shows and art openings. There is a lot to see and do and keeping up with it all is difficult. But that's a good problem, especially in comparison to other regional cities with similar demographics. And for a midsized town like Richmond that doesn't boast the population size of Washington or Philadelphia, the River City offers a large number of alternative spaces and art opportunities to offer its residents.


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