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Richmond on the Rise

Richmond on the Rise

Richmond on the Rise

Richmond on the Rise

Richmond on the Rise

FEBRUARY 6, 2018

Richmond, Virginia--affectionately called “RVA” by locals--is teeming with elements that make it charming and eminently livable (and land it on a plethora of “best cities” listicles), from extraordinary food and craft beer to outdoor activities. The visual arts scene is especially robust relative to the city’s modest size (approximately 220,000 city residents / 1.2 million in the metro area), boasting one of the finest art schools in the country, an outstanding museum with an encyclopedic collection, a handful of commercial galleries (albeit a relatively small base of collectors), alternative spaces of varying sizes and capacities, amazing maker-spaces and facilities. However, the scene is nowhere near its capacity; there’s room for growth, expansion, and diversification.

I’ve lived in Richmond for a little over three years, and it’s evident that the city is going through significant change in many realms, including the arts. Here are a few observations and opinions on the local arts scenes strengths and weaknesses, and ways it might improve.


Perversion of Form (installation view) at 1708 Gallery, 2017, Image courtesy of Terry Brown

Community pride and collaboration 

Richmonders “get” art and culture. They understand what it brings to the city’s identity, quality of life, and ability to attract new residents and tourists. Although Richmond has a list of arguably more pressing issues—not enough public transportation, underperforming public schools, rising incidents of gun violence, lingering debates about the presence of Confederate monuments and markers, to name a few—the importance of art and culture in civic life is embraced in spirit, even if supporting funds are sparse.

Richmond’s art scene is imbued with an earnest, non-hierarchical, collaborative spirit. Time after time, representatives from organizations large and small come to the same table to collectively work on ideas, projects, and initiatives.

Retention problems

Richmond has many qualities that make it attractive to artists, but the city has trouble attracting and retaining them. There are multiple reasons for this, but among the most pressing, I believe, are a relatively small number of venues in which to exhibit, and a scarcity of industry-related jobs with decent pay.

Public art

One indicator of the importance of arts to civic life is public art. In Richmond, public art most visibly takes the form of colorful painted murals on the sides of commercial and residential buildings. These murals have become embraced by the city, and photos of them often appear in the above-mentioned listicles.

It’s time for Richmond’s public art program to expand beyond murals. The city has put those wheels into motion; the mayor’s office (initiated by the previous mayor and continued by the current, both Democrats) hired outside consultants to do an assessment on the potential for public art. Combining the consultants’ findings with further research, the Public Art Commission put forward a detailed proposal for a public art master plan for the next decade. That plan has been sitting with the Richmond’s Planning Commission and City Council, but reportedly is coming up for a vote in early 2018. In the meantime, new public art projects have gone forward, including a well-received statue of hometown hero Maggie Walker, unveiled last summer.


Nick Fagan, Beauty Gazer, in Fine Line at ADA Gallery, 2017. 

VCU is a blessing…

Rarely does an art department/college operating within a large, public, urban research university hold the powerhouse status (more often, they are treated more like a neglected stepchild), but that’s exactly the case at Virginia Commonwealth University. Its School of the Arts is nationally respected and rightfully touts its consistent ranking by US News and World Report as both the country’s top public art and design graduate program, and among the top three overall art programs. VCUarts attracts some of the brightest and most talented students in the country, and employs approximately 300 faculty members. It keeps things fresh by cycling a steady flow of visiting artists, curators, and other lecturers to campus to engage with students, with some of those opportunities available to the public (although they are not well advertised). VCU is putting the finishing touches on a multimillion dollar building designed by celebrated architect Steven Holl that will house the non-collecting Institute for Contemporary Art, which is poised to be a game-changer for Richmond in several respects, including cultural tourism. It’s no exaggeration to say that the visual art scene in Richmond is as strong as it is because of VCUarts.

... and a curse

That kind of influence is a double-edged sword. While VCU is a vital anchor, the city’s cultural scene would benefit from being diversified from the university’s far-reaching command. It overshadows the arts programs at other local colleges and universities, including the University of Richmond and the historically black university, Virginia Union University. Perhaps most of all, its influence unwittingly handicaps people outside of its orbit. Ben Durham, a local artist with no ties to VCU, has strong opinions on this: “In the six years that I've lived and worked here, I've found Richmond to be a legitimately viable and vital city, and yet, there is no doubt that it is held back by its utter reliance on VCU. Because most cultural programming is so VCU-centric, we have been somewhat neglectful of other independent projects and ventures, and it's been difficult to build a progressive dialogue beyond the campus. The discourse happening at VCU is extremely positive, but it cannot help but be compromised by the very structures and hierarchies that the university represents and upholds. We all benefit tremendously from the university's presence, but perhaps I and others need to work harder to translate those benefits into an art scene that exists alongside, but does not solely rely on, VCU's academic community.”

One area of VCU’s impact that is inadequate is its employment practices. The School of the Arts employs over 120 adjunct instructors. While non-livable adjunct wages are a crisis across the U.S., the pay at VCU is especially abysmal. Recently, frustrated instructors came together as “VCUarts Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay,” gathered over 1400 signatures on a petition, and presented top university administrators with an official plea for change. Their declaration lists sobering statistics about VCUarts adjunct compensation: pay ranks last out of the top ten rated art schools; the pay cap is less than all other top ten art schools’ starting pay; and salaries are less than one-third of the national average. As one VCUarts adjunct succinctly bemoaned on Facebook, “I’m tired of eating air.” Just imagine how fair pay to over 120 artists would bolster the local arts economy.


VCU adjunct arts professors, community protest low wages, 2017, Image via adjunctsforfairpay.com

A need for strong critical voices

In her December end-of-the-year round-up of Richmond arts, local critic Amanda Dalla Villa Adams wrote, “The city continues to be challenged by a lack of publications for people to debate the local arts scene. Publishers — local and national, print and online — are limited by budgets, public opinion and space. Many fantastic exhibitions and events receive[d] no coverage this year.” I couldn’t agree more with her call for more platforms, as well as the need for additional critical writers to cover the scene in local and national outlets. To that end, I launched the RVA Critical Art Writing Program, a mentor-led workshop for aspiring art critics to gain confidence, experience, and skills. My hope is that, even in a modest way, this program will cultivate more outspoken voices in and around this community, increase coverage, and help raise Richmond’s profile.

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The Gilded Catalogue, (installation view), David Flaugher and Sophie Stone, at The Sunroom, 2017. Image courtesy of The Sunroom.
TOP: Down & Out, (installation view), Basma Alsharif and Corin Hewitt, 2017. Image courtesy of The Sunroom. 

Lauren Ross is an independent curator and writer, happily living in RVA.

A comprehensive feature on any state, area, or city that lacks mainstream coverage. Region considers the various factors that influence a particular art scene or art-making community, and how it sustains itself. Region also includes profiles of individuals influencing the area (be they curators, writers, artists, professors, etc.), and is always written by people familiar with the topography of the region’s art community. It can include interviews, op-eds, or dialogue in man other forms. Region aims to demystify specific art scenes for interested artists, educators, dealers, curators, advocates, and everything in-between.

© THE RIB 2017
© THE RIB 2017
© THE RIB 2017
© THE RIB 2017