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New York City artists adorned the walls in 1985. Photos courtesy Jeanne McNeil
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Jeanne McNeil dances with Topher Corbett at a Neopolitan event.
With the suitable chutzpah of 20-somethings, they called the gallery Neopolitan, meaning "New City." The four enthusiasts who started the gallery at 7 E. Broad St. weren't artists. During 1983 to 1985, however, they organized an array of experiences and exhibitions unlike anything else in Richmond's bedraggled downtown.
Also clustered into the three-story building: ThroTTle, a counterculture publication and karate chop to Richmond's self-importance, and Channel 36/ColorRadio, a free-form music experiment on the rainbow-pattern channel of cable television. It provided the gallery's soundtrack.
Jeanne McNeil, née Etheridge, a Neopolitan founder, says that the city supported the activity in what was an edgy part of town. "The landlord was generous, too, because he was glad something was going on in his building," she says.
Among the neighbors were a plasma-donation center that left empty blood bags in the alley, Cosby-Bowyer photography on Foushee, and Tarrant's Drug.
McNeil's then-roommate Curtis Marshall designed visual displays for Thalhimers department stores. While contemplating starting a club or gallery in an Art Deco space, he found 7 E. Broad, once Meyer's Jewelry Store. He became the gallery's artistic director.
"People in the arts community at first thought we'd lost our mind," recalls Marshall. The city's exhibition spaces trended toward Shockoe, like the artist-run, six-year-old 1708 at 1708 E. Main St., or Cudahy's in Shockoe Slip and Reynolds-Minor at 209 W. Franklin St.
Michael Fuller served as chairman of the gallery's board (and ThroTTle's business manager). Jerry Lewis, the public affairs director, was in the state's planning and budget department. McNeil, who worked in a doctor's office, handled administrative tasks. She also gallery-sat with Peaches, a big shepherd-collie mix.
The Neopolitan four and others formed the Seven East Corporation to refit the building and manage leasing. After the debris was cleared away, the still-rough building opened on April 1, 1983. Some 1,500 people attended the party, until McNeil rousted stragglers after four in the morning.
The gallery, then unnamed, opened a week later, showing graduating Virginia Commonwealth University sculptors. That September, four contemporary Italian artists showed in "Nord per Est." Visiting curator and art historian Giordano Viroli insisted on interior alterations. Tyvek covered the wood floor, and track lights were replaced by globe-shaped illumination arranged on the floor.
"It was magnificent," McNeil says. Then came "Gesture Into Image," featuring women painters including Richmonders Sally Lamb-Bowring, Joan Gaustad and Gail Nathan. "We painted the gallery black," Marshall says. "You directly confronted the work."
Lewis recalls large crowds at the monthly openings and the Neopolitan as a place to see and be seen. Those attending included local and regional visual artists, "a celebrity or two, elected officials, business executives, a few Windsor Farm types, musicians, drag queens, VCU art students and faculty."
The Neopolitan hosted lectures, teen dances and performances. German artist Paul Fuchs played instruments he'd built. Sculptor Charles Von Overman's installation converted the long narrow space into the Amazon River as tribute to Jacques Cousteau. In '84 and '85, the gallery hosted an auction of fantasy Christmas trees called "Oh, Tannenbaum!" The irrepressible Catherine Farmer, a past Richmond resident, presented huge paintings of her life in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in "A Mote in Summer's Eye."
Though Neopolitan's directors didn't know it, "East Village on Broad" in October 1985 was the gallery's last big show. Art historian Carlo McCormick brought New York artists who painted directly on the gallery's walls. A piratical skull and crossbones adorned Neopolitan's entrance. The group included Marilyn Minter, Marguerite Van Cook, David Wojnarowicz and Luis Frangella. (Frangella died of AIDS in 1990, Wojnarowicz from the disease's complications in 1992.)
The lives of the Neopolitan four soon changed. "Mike and Jerry moved to Florida and Curtis to New York City," McNeil says. Plus, the financials weren't working. Shortly after a big New Year's party at the end of 1985, the gallery closed. And yet, it was a trailblazer for the art scene now on Broad.
Eight years later, 1708 Gallery moved from Shockoe to Broad Street, followed shortly thereafter by Artspace. The after-hours Old Dominion Club opened around 1992 in the former Neopolitan.
Downtown revival efforts have come and gone, while cultural events continue to bring thousands of people (with occasional controversy) to city streets.