Photo by Ash Daniel
It's a Friday night in early October, and downtown Richmond is alive. For several city blocks, streams of people file in and out of neighboring art galleries, restaurants and coffee shops. A crowd surrounds a herky-jerky dancer swaying to loud music on one side of the street while, on the other side, a darkened storefront flickers with a video installation spread across multiple TV screens. Flying above attendees' heads are conspicuous banners touting the virtues of a new downtown arts district.
But a seasoned visitor to the First Fridays downtown arts event can automatically tell that the crowds are thinner than usual. And something else is missing: The petite, fire-haired lady who got the ball rolling for all of this and kept it rolling for 11 years with little money, scarce municipal support and occasional bouts of controversy and intrigue.
"It's been a personal relief not to deal with the nonsense, the politics," says Christina Newton, the ex-director of Curated Culture, the now-dissolved nonprofit that once ran this circus. "I get to work in my garden, spend time with my family and finally get paid a living wage to do a job that I love."
That's not to say that Newton, who now works full time as a project manager for the Virginia Association of Museums, isn't angry. For more than a decade, she was the main sparkplug behind First Fridays. As its founder and director, she was in charge of marketing and website management for a growing event that now boasts two dozen venues, and she also served as First Fridays' advocate, spokesperson and liaison to the city and police.
While big-ticket projects like 6th Street Marketplace and Richmond CenterStage have met with varying degrees of success in bringing white-flight suburbanites back to Richmond's urban core, a relatively small group of mostly ignored gallery owners and businesses, under the direction of Newton, working for nothing, started actually doing it more than a decade ago with First Fridays. (In 11 years, Curated Culture received just $4,000 from the city's economic development department. The organization has received support from Richmond police to help close off streets and direct crowds.)
Now, Newton says, she's being kicked to the curb.
"I knew that some kind of transition was going to happen," she admits. For months, Newton had been meeting with the board of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) about merging with Curated Culture. "It seemed like a win-win, and it seemed like a way to restructure First Fridays because I did not want to do [it] forever. Instead, I was told, ‘No, we don't want you involved. We just want First Fridays.' "
Newton's detractors — inside and outside the DNA — privately share grievances as long as a horizon line: She could be brusque in her personal manner, she didn't play well with others, she was not a good public speaker, she stopped filing requisite non-profit reports and 990s, she was slow to support outside events that she didn't control. She is even criticized for the dull look of the First Fridays website.
Many add that she didn't react well to controversy — such as the extended talks that surrounded an arts district proposal that the city finally OK'd in April over her public objections. Newton worked for years with local arts groups and business leaders to craft an arts district plan that was modeled on successful initiatives in other locales, and then (according to her) she was left holding the bag when the city's new economic development director, Peter Chapman, came up with a plan covering a much broader section of downtown.
"The geographic area is just too large," Newton says of the new district. "The point of a special arts district is that it must be walkable and that there's something there to see. There has to benefits for the visitor, whether it is parking or a diversity of shops or something of cultural benefit. The plan that passed spans from Belvidere to the State Capitol. It just doesn't make sense to me."
She says that the stakeholders who supported the original, smaller proposal switched sides in order to get whatever they could. "It's easier to be friends with those in charge and who's got the money," Newton says with a sigh. "It's really become a class-based situation downtown."
The former director was also criticized for her reaction to the violence that occurred last summer when local youth started making trouble during First Fridays. This came, not surprisingly, after Community Assisted Public Safety (CAPS) officials began showing up at First Fridays venues to enforce occupancy limits — which only forced more events outside. Newton took flak for ceding too much control to police and for her initial suggestion that the event might be cancelled in August and September, following incidents at July 2011's First Fridays. (After more problems in August, September 2011's event was cancelled.) "Some people said I didn't do enough, some people said I did too much," she remembers.
Her biggest transgression, critics argue, was that she wasn't paying attention to First Fridays, and the event began to suffer. "What Christina brought to the table was tenacity and vision for growing it into a bigger event with coordinated marketing and advocacy, all of which have benefited the neighborhood," says Emily Smith, executive director of 1708 Gallery, one of First Fridays' founding galleries. At the same time, Smith, a newly installed DNA board member, says it was long past time for Newton to step aside. "Christina had other obligations and didn't have the time to commit to the process."
"I'm not perfect," Newton says upon reflection. "I have made a lot of mistakes." But she argues that she had no choice but to pull back. After years of begging City Hall and business groups for funding that would have enabled her to concentrate full time on First Fridays, she was forced to find outside work. Curated Culture depended on donations, dues — $200 a year, reduced to $150 last year — and sponsorships to pay for First Fridays. Newton says that many venues couldn't (or wouldn't) pay, but she included them anyway. "I didn't want my job to be some sort of collection agency." The latest setback, she claims, was a promise of $25,000 by Mayor Dwight Jones himself — money that never came, and that the mayor's office now says was never offered.
Newton admits that she hasn't been as focused on the event of late, but she says that she was open about her situation. "I communicated with the participants and told them that I was taking a full-time job, [so] no, I've not been in communications with people like I could have. But I've definitely been promoting the program. But has anyone contacted me with concerns? No. I'm sure that the DNA would have loved to have heard me say, ‘Take it,' but I wasn't going to do that. Meanwhile, they were moving on their own."
What particularly galls Newton is that, unbeknownst to her, even as she continued to handle marketing for First Fridays, a new salaried director, Meghan Barbato, was being hired to run the event. Barbato's salary and other monies to administer the event are being paid for with charitable contributions from Altria and Venture Richmond, with fundraising ongoing. The DNA will now oversee First Fridays. The October installment was the first under its oversight, and the lower attendance could be attributed to the fact that First Fridays' current online presence is still Curated Culture's website, last updated in September.
"We hope to have a new website up by the November First Fridays," says Barbato, a VCU marketing graduate. She, with her husband, Phil, has been a vendor at the GrowRVA Market, situated next to Quirk Gallery, for a number of years. "I don't have firsthand experience with how Curated Culture was running things, but I will be serving as a liaison to all parties. I will be the public face of First Fridays. … I'm there to serve, not to dictate."
Christian Kiniry, a real estate advisor who serves as president of the DNA, denies that his association ever lobbied the city to run First Fridays. "We made ourselves available, that's all I'll say." He adds that he doesn't know if dues will be collected from participating venues but says that First Fridays will no longer have a separate governing board. Scott Garrett, a former DNA president, says that Barbato will make $25,000 a year in her new position.
Tammy Hawley, the mayor's press secretary, says that City Hall had nothing to do with the decision to get rid of Christina Newton, and no direct involvement with First Fridays, including the selection of the association to take it over. In an emailed statement, Hawley writes: "DNA has not received any money from our administration for economic development projects. DNA would be eligible to apply for incentives from the city's arts district program and may apply like any other eligible entity. They have not applied for nor received any such funding from the program at this time." (Hawley later noted that the city's economic development department had been a $10,000 sponsor of Broad Appétit, the popular DNA-hosted food event, via a contribution to Venture Richmond, which then gave the funds to the DNA.)
Privately, several gallery owners confide that they were told during a meeting convened at Candela Books & Gallery by the DNA — and attended by city officials — that there was approximately $100,000 coming from the city for arts district marketing. "For several months leading up to the submission of the arts district ordinance, we certainly did speak to stakeholders about how the fiscal year 2013 arts district dollars might be allocated across several program areas including marketing, façade improvement and small business or micro-enterprise support," says Chapman, adding that he's unaware of that particular meeting. "And $100K as a potential budget for the marketing piece sounds accurate."
Christina Newton worries that, under the new leadership, First Fridays will lose sight of its original grass-roots mission. "Look at what kind of representation is on the DNA board … mostly Realtors and property owners." She's concerned that, with Emily Smith of 1708 and Katie Ukrop of neighboring Quirk Gallery as the only arts-oriented representatives on the DNA board, First Fridays' new overseers will be selective in how and whom they market (Ukrop did not respond to several interview requests.)
But Ghostprint Gallery's Geraldine Duskin maintains that the event's arts-first focus was lost long ago. "What we've done, and what a lot of galleries have done, is start First Thursdays," she says. "We're taking the Thursday before First Fridays and turning it into a gallery night. The association isn't running that. It's an unofficial restructuring because First Fridays has become too crowded for serious art buyers to look at the work. First Thursdays, with the artists in attendance, gives them an opportunity to actually concentrate on the art."
Although she is now out of the frame, Newton can't help advocating. "I do have guilt that I'm not there speaking up for the businesses. The businesses need to make their voices heard, and that would be my message to them, to hold the Downtown Neighborhood Association's feet to the fire and make sure that First Fridays is democratically represented, because that has always been my goal."
And, with that, Christina Newton says a polite goodbye. She's got a garden to tend.