The Advocate 

An Interview with John Bryan, president of CultureWorks.

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John Bryan is a soft-spoken, no-nonsense former Virginia Commonwealth University arts dean who has been tasked to turn the blue-haired remains of the Arts Council of Richmond into a vital new organization called CultureWorks.
On the eve of the announcement of his new entity's founding board of directors, Style Weekly sat down with Bryan, 59, to discuss this new advocacy group, and all of the other “Cs” currently floating around the local arts landscape — cultural-action plans, CAPS, CenterStage and his new favorite word, collaboration.

Style: How is CultureWorks different from the old Arts Council?

Bryan: CultureWorks will have the mission simply of being the champion for the region's arts and culture. We'll do no programming, we'll do no events, and it will be our job to be of service. The need is for an independent go-to agency that can do advocacy, that can provide all sorts of services, that can be a catalyst for collaboration for big projects. We can either point people in the right direction or bring the right people to the table. That is completely different from what the old Arts Council did.

Some would say that the Arts Council stagnated because the board was all corporate and didn't allow artists and arts professionals in.

I think everyone will be pleased with the CultureWorks board. My charge is to build the type of board that our arts and cultural community deserves. Each member has to be enthusiastic about the arts and has to be willing to give his personal time. We need every cylinder clicking and we don't need any figureheads. Unless the figurehead is a cylinder that is clicking.
Will CultureWorks help to distribute corporate arts contributions?

The Arts Council had a thing called the Arts Fund. ... It has now gone away. One of the charges that the Regional Cultural Action Plan made was that we had to determine whether a United Way Fund for the Arts should exist in the city, and if so how much money should be raised and should be given away. Our new board will be determining that. My personal thought, and I'll give this for the record, I think we have to have some sort of gathering of money to give to artists.

For those who don't know, what is the Regional Cultural Action Plan?

A small group of Richmond arts leaders got together and said “How can we make some comprehensive and strategic sense out of the rich arts and cultural environment here in the Richmond region?” Other cities had installed a cultural plan. … so they hired consultants out of Boston to come and help fashion one for Richmond. The consultants had five areas of research and got 2,807 Richmonders to fill out long, long surveys. ... They took [demographic and financial] information from the arts groups and synthesized it and came up with this Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan, which is sort of a guide to making arts and culture even stronger in the region.

Let's pull back for a second and look at Richmond's arts community. How would you describe it at the present time?

The overwhelming theme is collaboration. One example is what's happening at CenterStage on Sept. 12.  For one ticket, one event, you get to see the ballet, the opera, the Barksdale, Elegba, Richmond Shakespeare, on and on. I met with the membership director of Americans for the Arts. ... this organization knows every city in the country. They are unaware of any city ever presenting its symphony, opera and ballet together. ... I had lunch with Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center and he is unaware of that ever happening.

And there are a couple reasons why it never happens. I'm an artist myself and all of us who are artists are prima donnas and it is tough to get prima donnas to collaborate. ... How do you get four premier organizations to do this, much less nine like we have? There's just something in the air.

But isn't this one-night collaboration a small sacrifice for the nine arts groups to make, given that they have just been handed a $73 million arts center?

I agree with you 100 percent, but once you get in these groups you see how hard it is to make happen.
How can CultureWorks help the downtown arts venues as they deal with the CAPS [Community Assisted Public Safety] program over building code issues?

I was at an event last week. … and a woman who works for a First Fridays venue asked me the same question. I asked her if her staff had been visited by CAPS. She said yes. I said, Were they nice? “Oh yeah.” Did they use Gestapo tactics? “No.” Were they helpful and did they explain? … “Yeah.” And did you disagree with anything they found. “Well, no.” … And did they say they were willing to work with you? “Yeah.” But then she said, “But ... others.” And that's the thing. I haven't found the “others.” I don't have the first-hand information about anything negative going on.

The General Assembly now allows cities to start their own arts districts. Could Richmond start one?

Any city in Virginia now can start an arts district [where] the city determines its own rules. The only thing the city can't do is go against state law but if there are city ordinances or city zones, it's an opportunity to relax those or to have different ordinances. [But] before any municipality establishes an arts district, the arts and cultural community has to be on the same page — we've got that in Richmond — you've got to have money and you've got to have someone overseeing it, which requires a budget. 

Would CultureWorks advocate for an official Richmond arts district?

It's premature right now, but sure. I just haven't had time to think about where the money would come from or even what the district would be.

What will you push for in the future?

One thing we're looking into is [lowering] the city admissions tax, and we've got various things going on there. ... to come up with something better for the city's tax base and something better for the livelihood downtown.

CultureWorks will host the first of three public meetings Sept. 29 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond to discuss the Regional Culture Action Plan, which can be downloaded at www.wolfbrown.com/richmond. Discussion begins at 6 p.m. For information, call 340-5281.


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