Sarah Walor photo
Leadership in Action 10 of 12
Brooks M. Smith's lilting voice is well known by WCVE listeners. For the past year, he has broadcast pieces about Richmond's cultural history and last month published Songlines of Richmond with Wayne Dementi. The book is a pictorial tribute to the city's arts venues and artists. An environmental lawyer with Hunton and Williams and a founding member of the Capital Regional Land Conservancy, Smith will chair the new CultureWorks board, which replaces the Arts Council of Richmond.
Q. When did you start at WCVE?
A. In 2005. Every two weeks, I would do an essay on Thursday mornings. A year ago, CenterStage approached me about doing shows on performing arts and artists and volunteered to sponsor the show.
Q. When do you find time to write?
A. At 4:30 a.m., before the weight of the world falls on my shoulders.
Q. Through your interviews for the book, who stands out for you?
A. Frances Wessells, who just turned 90 and is still teaching. She's been teaching since the 1940s. I felt I was talking with a 30-year-old. …Two others are Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett. They are the epitome of artists — working artists with long, happy careers, and they are happy to share it. …One other person is B.J. Brown of the Richmond Jazz Society. She's an amazing woman, so passionate. … And Theresa Pollak. I wish I had gotten to know her.
Q: Where does your interest in the arts originate?
A: I come from a musical family. My dad played tenor sax and put himself through college playing in a jazz band. I still can hear him play to his favorite pianist, Oscar Peterson. … I played trombone through college, and I play string instruments now, but I never figured how to fully express myself through instruments, so I turned to the pen. I have a guitar and a mandolin. In the industry, they would say I have heavy hands.
Q: So you ended up in law school, studying environmental law?
A: Music is one muse, and the great outdoors is another. I had a friend once tell me that you can measure the quality of your life by the number of nights you've spent outdoors. … I wanted to do something to protect it. I went up to law school at Vermont Law School, which had a program in environmental law.
Q: How did your new gig with CultureWorks come about?
A: You know the Talking Heads lyrics, "And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile?" That's how I feel right now. The Arts Council staff wanted a new board, with new ideas, energy to go along with the new Cultural Action Plan. That's not to say the old board was deficient. John Bryan get things done, works with his head down and no flash. John Bryan asked, and he convinced me that I might be the right person for the job. I have a dual face as being an artist who writes and being a suit as a lawyer.
Q: So what will CultureWorks do?
A: Our goal, as John likes to say, is to be a champion for the arts and a catalyst for an even more vibrant arts and cultural landscape.
Q: Will the Arts Council's Arts Fund stay or go away?
A: The Arts Fund was like a United Way of the arts, with public funds and private money. I think a general fund is still needed for emerging artists and emerging arts groups. That's where I hope the energy and focus is, but this will be an issue for the new board to address, and I don't want to presume how it will go.
Q: What part of the regional Cultural Action Plan is most critical to you?
A: Technical and financial assistance for emerging artists. I'm privileged to be able to write and have a day job to support it, but many artists do not have the luxury of a steady income.