John Pollard at ADA Gallery downtown. (Photo by Chet Strange)
When John Pollard brought his Artists Downtown Access (ADA) Gallery to Jefferson and Broad streets in 2003, what’s now the Richmond Arts District mainly comprised 1708 Gallery, Artspace, Elegba Folklore Society, Corporate and Museum Frame and the Visual Art Studio. During ADA’s early days, Pollard often included music along with exhibitions, but with the arrival of venues like Balliceaux restaurant and Black Iris, the performance aspect seemed unnecessary. He misses the energy sometimes, though he says, “I can worry less about art getting knocked off the wall.”
Much has changed since then. First Fridays, which started small 15 years ago, has expanded to 40 venues and inspired museums and the Library of Virginia to follow suit. The excitement brought restaurants and shops to shuttered storefronts. Gallery5, formed in 2005 within a 19th-century fire and police station, exhibited paintings, sculpture and fine crafts, but also created a festival atmosphere. The University of Richmond in 2009 opened a downtown site that incorporates a gallery, and Quirk Gallery in 2015 expanded into an art-filled boutique hotel. Ashley Kistler, a longtime Richmond curator and arts administrator, observes about First Fridays, “I think the primary value of this monthly event has been to increase and diversify audiences for contemporary art, and to provide more opportunities for pop-up/temporary offerings that reveal a fuller range of current creative endeavors and interests. Unquestionably, it’s been a successful engagement strategy: In the process, First Fridays has reinvigorated Broad Street as a viable after-hours destination — a major accomplishment in the wake of various failed attempts since 1980.”
First Fridays brought crowds to downtown and gallery visitation increased, but all the commotion didn’t necessarily boost art sales. In response, some galleries began holding invitational Thursday openings for those who wanted to spend not only time, but money, on the art.
Artspace moved from Broad Street in 2004 across the river to Plant Zero, in part due to the deteriorating condition of its building, and also because of the pressure of First Fridays, where hundreds trooped through without experiencing the work. Today, the Manchester district’s Fourth Fridays events draw several hundred visitors, and sales have made a steady increase. “We’d go a week on Broad Street and not see anybody, which sounds weird,” Artspace president Dana Frostick says. “But down here, we’ll get six to 12 people during the day.”
In contrast, 1708’s director, Emily Smith, says that First Fridays is the nonprofit gallery’s biggest night of the month. “We’re not just giving away wine and cheese. And people do look at the work. They ask questions,” she says. “First Fridays helps us demonstrate that we bring art to a wide and diverse audience.”
For galleries, reaching the audience is an ongoing challenge that requires continuous innovation, restructuring and adjustment. Selling art involves a narrow margin, whether in Richmond or amid the gallery constellation of Chelsea in New York City.
Studio Two Three in Scott’s Addition. (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Hues and Tones
Pollard, a Petersburg native, brought a punk-rock sensibility to the scene and cultivated a roster of artists both local and national. Pollard has had spaces on Main Street here and in New York (both something of an experiment), and in 2006 he began attending art fairs in Miami and New York City. “They aren’t cheap, so it’s risky business,” he adds, noting the entry fees, cost of travel and expense of transporting artwork. Still, he observes, “It is great exposure for our artists and for Richmond as well.” Pollard says that a surprising number of the people he’s met from around the world at these fairs know of Richmond only from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series, as the former capital of the Confederacy. But it’s people like Pollard who are, by dint of their efforts, re-assigning the region’s identity from unresolved belligerent to feisty cultural contributor.
Richmond’s art-showing spaces run the gamut from the venerable and respected to new and pop-up spaces. There’s the Reynolds Gallery, with top regional and national artists who sell in New York City and elsewhere, and the veteran Eric Schindler Gallery, which represents often figurative, but eclectic and accomplished work. One can admire the post-graduate youthful Sediment Arts on East Grace Street downtown and the DIY print arts program of Studio Two Three in Scott’s Addition.
There are the instructional art center galleries, the oldest among them the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, which is both a museum-quality exhibition space and a place of practical study with studios and classes. The artist hives of Crossroads Art Center on Staples Mill Road and Art Works in Manchester offer space for creatives who may not be art school graduates, and 1708 Gallery and Artspace exist to exhibit work that might not otherwise get shown here.
A difference between a commercial model gallery like Pollard’s and a nonprofit is that beyond the monthly exhibitions, ADA Gallery represents a small group of artists, local and from around the country, on a regular and long-term basis.
One of the oldest artist-run galleries in the country, 1708 was born out of the desire to display work that wouldn’t necessarily receive a showing here, or might receive censure from institutional administrators. Since making sales isn’t the gallery’s goal, but rather exhibiting new work chosen by an exhibitions committee, 1708 earns its keep through events such as the Monster Drawing Rally in December and a February art auction, dubbed “Cabin Fever.” The biggest event that 1708 manages with a small staff and volunteers is the annual “InLight,” a kaleidoscope of sound, visual and illuminated outdoor work that’s free to the public.
“We have a deliberate, noncommercial focus, so we do rely on grants, fundraisers, and support of individuals and foundations and corporate entities — especially for ‘InLight,’ ” Smith explains.
These varying places have in common that the mysteries of what impels an artist go right alongside the uncertainties of why people are moved to purchase. Price is relative: For some, art is viewed as an expensive indulgence; for others, price may reflect an artist’s future success, and if it’s not high enough, this may indicate that the work won’t endure in value.
Today’s geographic spread of Richmond galleries and studios can be traced in part to the break-up of the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center, which operated in a former tobacco warehouse from 1994 to 2003 and paid its rent through studio and special-events rentals and monthly judged shows. More than 200 artists worked and showed there until apartment developers chose not to renew the center’s lease. The displaced artists wandered to find studios in Petersburg, Crossroads Art Center on Staples Mill Road and the Manchester district.
Former Shockoe Bottom artists Paula Demmert and Glenda Kotchish set up shop with the name Art Works in the ragged, two-level Westvaco Box Co. offices and warehouse in Manchester adjacent to what is now Plant Zero. The rambling space allowed room for more than 80 studios, a large exhibition space and upper gallery. For many of the Art Works exhibitors, their submissions are the first time they’ve shown work.
The gallery charges 10 percent in commission from studio sales and 35 percent from pieces sold in the monthly All Media show. “Any excess revenue is used to maintain the building,” says Demmert. “Unfortunately this old warehouse requires more maintenance than we can afford, and this is our greatest challenge financially.” Art Works is unusual among its peers, too, in that the organization owns its space.
Likewise, Crossroads’ Jenni Kirby and James Bassfield in 2002 used the Shockoe Bottom model of artists-in-residence and judged entries when they moved into a commercial space that formerly housed a U-Haul rental and flooring store.
Crossroads went from one building with 10,000 square feet and 50 artists to three buildings with 25,000 square feet and 225 artists who pay a 15-percent sales commission. Openings can generate attendance of 600 to 1,500, and nonprofit benefit nights on First Fridays provide a boost. “The audience for Stop Child Abuse Now and the Richmond Symphony are different viewers for the artists,” says Kirby. Sales fluctuate, but the rental income remains constant due to near-capacity occupancy. Classes and special events further bolster the revenue stream.
A Place to Grow
For Sediment gallery’s Claire Zitzow, the variety of galleries shows how robust Richmond’s art culture is, ranging from established forums to newcomers like hers. Sediment is a block off the First Fridays trail, but Zitzow says people find the gallery. “I like being a little off the beaten path,” she says, adding with a slight laugh, “besides, the rent is cheaper.”
A Richmond native and graduate of VCU’s sculpture program, Zitzow was inspired by artist-run organizations in San Diego. Smaller, sometimes short- lived initiatives are invigorating, she says. “It’s healthy to have these alternative spaces around.”
The gallery’s name is derived from Zitzow’s interest in geologic scales of time, and stems from the renovation work undertaken in the space to clean multiple layers of grime. Sediment, too, finds its way into the cracks of harder places and, when water is added, offers a place for life to grow.
While art production flourishes here, it hasn’t gotten the national media attention of, say, Richmond’s dining scene. “There’s all these restaurant reviews, but not that much in terms of critical attention to the arts,” Zitzow says.
Richmonders tend to know that art is a part of our cultural mix , but the outside world may not have that familiarity. And art is a more difficult sell than an Instagrammable gourmet dinner.
But while delicious food is gone in an evening, art endures.