Richmond gets into a groove

The capital city builds on its arts-and-culture buzz

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Print this page by Doug Childers

Alex Nyerges, the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), thinks Richmond is on the verge of an artistic explosion. If VMFA’s recent experience is any guide, an arts renaissance in the city could pump millions into the regional economy.

The VMFA was one of only three art museums in the U.S. to be included in a seven-city, worldwide tour of Pablo Picasso’s artwork.

The Richmond exhibition, which ran this year from Feb. 19 to May 15, attracted more than 230,000 visitors, generating $26.6 million for the region, according to an economic impact study by Richmond-based Chmura Economcs & Analytics. That translated into nearly $1 million in local and state tax revenues and created an estimated 297 jobs.

The region cannot count on having a high-voltage international event such as the Picasso exhibit every year, but Richmond has begun to take a serious look at the economic value of its extensive artistic assets. The city government and business community are considering ways to promote the arts and provide incentives that will help them thrive.

The Picasso exhibit was an artistic coup for Richmond and VMFA. The only other U.S. cities in the international tour were Seattle and San Francisco. So how did VMFA pull it off?

A $200 million, 165,000-square-foot addition to the museum, completed in May 2010, helped win over exhibition organizers, as did the museum’s status as the ninth largest comprehensive museum in the U.S. Also helpful was the museum’s ability quickly to raise $2.7 million in corporate and individual support to fund the show. “It was 12 months from sign-on to opening the doors,” Nyerges says. “That’s lightning fast in the art world.”

Richmond itself also played a part in landing the Picasso exhibition. “We have a tremendous art scene in Richmond,” Nyerges says.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts tops U.S. News & World Report’s list as the No. 1 public art school in the U.S., and seven of its 16 graduate programs make the magazine’s Top 10 list for all U.S. programs, including public and private.

The city also has about 40 galleries attracting patrons to local shows. Artspace, a visual and performing arts gallery in Richmond’s Manchester district, attracts more than 400 visitors to its arts shows featuring local, regional and national artists each month, for example.

An additional 200 visitors each month enjoy the gallery’s SlamRichmond, “the only free weekly Slam Poetry event for both youth and adult performers in Richmond,” says Jessica L. Sims, the gallery’s president. The competition features poets performing their work in front of a judges panel. Artspace is a part of the Plant Zero Arts Complex, which also includes artists’ studios, businesses and housing.

Since 2000, people have been coming downtown on the first Friday of every month for the First Fridays Art Walk. The monthly event originally featured nine galleries and museums along Broad Street. Now the program has grown to include “more than 40 art galleries, cultural venues, restaurants, shops and accommodations located on Broad Street and throughout Jackson and Monroe wards and even as far east as Ninth Street,” says Christina Newton, director of Curated Culture, the event organizer.

The September First Friday Art Walk, however, was cancelled after the August event was marred by fights among an estimated 2,000 teens. Police arrested five people in connection with the incident.

Organizers are trying to decide whether to make changes in the program to permit better crowd control.

Richmond CenterStage, a performing arts complex, also attracts crowds downtown with a wide array of performances, including opera, ballet, Broadway shows and rock concerts. The complex’s venues include the restored, 1,800-seat Carpenter Theatre (located on Grace Street and built in 1928 as a movie palace) and the 3,600-seat Landmark Theater (located on Laurel Street and built in 1927). Combined, the complex’s four venues attracted nearly 240,000 patrons from July 2010 to June this year.

“Any day of the week, the public has access to exhibitions, performances, concerts, classes, presentations and much more in Richmond,” says Artspace’s Sims. “It makes for a very appealing, constant art community.”

The city might find itself displaying arts and culture on an even larger stage in the next few years. VCU’s School of the Arts plans to build the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at the corner of West Broad and North Belvidere streets, and its impact could be profound. “The ICA will be the marquee building for the city of Richmond, and it will change the way people see the city,” says Joseph H. Seipel, dean of the VCU School of Arts.

The 30,000-square-foot facility, designed by internationally recognized architect Steven Holl, will house 8,000 square feet of gallery space, as well as a 250-seat auditorium for musical and dance performances, film screenings and lectures. It also will have a café, a bookstore and several meeting rooms. “We want it to be the cultural hub for that part of the city,” Seipel says. The privately funded project, which Seipel estimates will cost $30 million, should open to the public in 2015.
“The building will have the scale to bring in cutting-edge, important art from around the world,” he adds.

Not just art for art’s sake
City leaders believe Richmond’s growing arts-and-culture community represents an opportunity for economic development, and they’re seeding it with significant grants, loans and marketing support. ArtBusiness Richmond, the primary programmatic vehicle for revitalizing the greater Broad Street area in downtown Richmond, draws from a general, citywide pool of loan capital totaling approximately $23 million as well as new resources (up to $1 million). It focuses on property rehabilitation, façade improvement and small-business support.

For its first project, ArtBusiness Richmond made a $250,000 loan to developers who are rehabbing two blighted buildings on East Grace Street and East Broad Street. The projects will create 24 apartments as well as commercial space for local artists. City spokesman Michael Wallace says the city anticipates “investing millions more into worthy projects in the near future.”

To complement ArtBusiness Richmond, Mayor Dwight C. Jones this year proposed that the city formally designate an arts and cultural district. It would cover a significant portion of downtown and would include the Valentine Richmond History Center, Theatre IV, CenterStage and the Museum of the Confederacy, as well as the galleries along Broad Street.

The plan also calls for fee waivers and reduced interest rates for loans made to qualified arts and culture entities, as well as regulatory incentives and funds to help promote, market and brand the arts and culture district.

By offering loans as well as grants, much of “the money would come back for the next wave of development,” says Lee Downey, Richmond’s director of economic and community development. “What we propose as initiatives is far outweighed by what we’ll bring back in. It’s not a substantial upfront cost.”

Excitement about the proposed arts district is building, Downey says. “Several times a week, I’m involved in businesses looking at projects and new programs. It’s almost a daily occurrence.”

The city is getting help promoting Richmond’s creative efforts from a new branding campaign called RVA Creates. It’s the brainchild of a group that includes six creative organizations — the Martin Agency, West Cary Group, J H I, Elevation, the Hodges Partnership and VCU’s Brandcenter — as well as the promotional group Venture Richmond and city representatives.

The goal of RVA Creates was to find Richmond’s identity and market it “to get people excited again about the city and to attract innovative people and businesses from outside the city,” says Matt Williams, executive vice president and partner at the Martin Agency.

The central concept they settled on — Richmond’s creativity — resonates across a wide spectrum, he adds. “There’s a huge resurgence of creative activity in the city, with arts and culture, the city government and business.” 

And the campaign — driven primarily through social media and mobile applications —  isn’t just art for art’s sake. “The biggest source of advantage in the business world is creativity,” Williams says. “If we can shine a light on creativity in Richmond, we can help the city to grow even faster.” 

Richmond region at a glance

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