Photo by Kip Dawkins
Over four decades, from the 1970s forward, Beverly Reynolds was a crusader for contemporary art in Richmond.
She founded the renowned Reynolds Gallery in the 1500 block of West Main Street, and she helped sow the seeds for what has become a flourishing community of contemporary artists and galleries. That, in turn, has helped make Richmond a destination city for the arts.
Her long, often intensely personal campaign for recognition of contemporary art in Richmond ended Sunday, Nov. 23, when Reynolds succumbed, overpowered by her battle with ovarian cancer.
She had been diagnosed about three years earlier, she wrote in a September op-ed column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in which she appealed for additional funding for ovarian cancer research. She said her mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 54.
At 68, Reynolds’ mind was still sharp, her voice still strong in her final days as she answered questions relayed by her daughters in a recorded interview for this profile, her passion for the arts undiminished till the end.
Perhaps more than anyone, her friends and professional colleagues say, Reynolds fed the region’s expanding appetite for the new and different. She cultivated artists and, at times, defended their work when it needed defending.
“I would do anything for Bev,” says Sally Mann of Lexington, regarded as one of the foremost, and at times one of the most controversial, photographers in the modern era.
In 2000, Mann displayed some of her photographs, including unclothed images of her children and other images that some deemed to be sexually explicit, during a presentation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
She received a standing ovation. But after an attendee complained, Gov. Jim Gilmore wrote to the museum’s interim director, saying he was “shocked and dismayed that this type of exhibit occurred on state-owned property” and that “outrageous displays that push the envelope of decency and challenge the values of our society are simply unacceptable.”
Reynolds immediately rallied to Mann’s defense. “Her work is extraordinarily beautiful, mysterious and challenging, and at times provocative, with images of the things she loves the most: her family and the Southern landscape,” she told a Times-Dispatch reporter.
“I consider Sally Mann to be one of the most important American photographers living today,” Reynolds said then, embroiling herself in a pitched philosophical argument with the highest elected official in the state.
Characteristically, Reynolds’ gallery had just ended a show of Mann’s work — it was the most heavily attended in the gallery’s history — when the controversy erupted.
Contemporary art is not always easy to understand. Prospective buyers sometimes need an interpreter, and in that, Reynolds seemed to excel.
“She was a good explainer,” says Joe Seipel, dean of the VCU School of the Arts. “She could look at a piece of art, and because she can talk about the artist’s process and motivation, she can make the piece accessible.” That’s one of the big reasons her gallery was so successful for decades, Seipel says.
Reynolds sold not only to collectors — from all corners of the country — but to corporations and generations of Richmonders who came to her, often warily at first, to get an introduction to contemporary art.
In a 2008 story for R•Home, this magazine’s sister publication, Reynolds discussed her appreciation of the paintings, sculptures and other works she both collected and sold. Artistic expression, the gallery owner noted, has a transformative power. “I think art can take you there,” she said. “No matter how many times I look at these things, they always take my breath away. They’re just amazing — how did somebody do that?”
She added, “It does change your perspective on the world, being able to look through someone else’s eyes.” Of course, she sold many works through her gallery that she would have preferred to keep. Those she couldn’t sell to other collectors, she bought herself and put in her own home. (In her interview with her daughters, Reynolds noted that she once had a Warhol “which I wish I had bought.”)
Reynolds’ ability to explain and advocate also was one of the reasons, Seipel says, that she was able to persuade donors and university officials to press forward with the idea of a dramatic edifice in Richmond for displaying contemporary art, when construction of such a building seemed improbable.
Reynolds’ dream, the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), is now rising from the site of a former parking lot at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets, on one of the city’s gateway corridors.
About $33 million has been raised toward a goal of $35 million. Construction of the building, designed by architect Steven Holl, recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ highest award, is expected to take about two years.
“We had a consultant in years ago and asked the consultant, ‘How much can we raise for a museum?’ He said there was no way we could raise more than $12 million,” Seipel recalls.
The arts dean says that the consultant was badly misreading the region’s enthusiasm for the creative process and, of course, the consultant’s calculations didn’t include the persuasive powers of Reynolds herself.
“Bev is most singularly responsible for the ICA,” Seipel says. “She was unwavering, absolutely insistent that this happen.”
Reynolds often expressed the view that the VCU School of the Arts, which U.S. News and World Report has ranked as the No. 1 public university arts and design program in the country, deserved a museum to match its achievements and the accomplishments of its many well-known graduates.
Seipel has known Reynolds ever since he was a struggling sculptor.
When Seipel and some partners opened what was then the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café on West Main Street, Reynolds soon relocated her gallery across the street.
Artists, executives and construction workers mixed easily in the café, and it was a comfortable place for Reynolds, who opened the Main Street gallery in 1984, to have a cup of coffee or talk shop.
Reynolds had moved to Richmond in 1975 with her husband, David, the retired president of Miller Manufacturing Co.
In the interview recorded shortly before her death by her daughters Alice Livingston and Margaret Jones, Reynolds shared some of her misgivings about moving to Richmond.
“I was kind of hesitant to move to a Southern city,” Reynolds says, “because I spent a lot of time in the North and loved the dynamic nature of that.
“But I found that VCU just filled in so many places in my life. Even then, VCU had an extraordinary School of the Arts. I got to know some of the faculty, and I took classes there. It was really my lifeline when I got here.”
By 1978, Reynolds was selling art out of her home, often at Friday evening get-togethers among friends and neighbors, heavy on the hors d’oeuvres and with an open bar. Her husband expressed uneasiness about the whole process.
“My husband reminded me that it was our friends who were buying the art. And I said, ‘That’s OK, they’re getting good stuff,’ ” she told one of her daughters. They both laughed at that.
Reynolds used her New York connections to sell art on consignment from dealers she knew. She had been a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the United States, then honed her skills further by working with a private art dealer, Jeanne Frank, who sold the works of Pablo Picasso and other luminaries of contemporary art from her Manhattan apartment.
Many of those who bought art from Reynolds say her tastes were impeccable.
“Bev had the eye, the sensibility, the instinct to spot people who have fundamental talent, almost below the radar. I have bought 50 or 60 pieces from her,” says George Logan of Charlottesville, a lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and a longtime businessman.
Lisa Freiman, director of VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, laughed when she thought of the sweet deals that some buyers must have received when they bought the works of then-unknown artists that Reynolds recommended.
“A lot of people have works by Tara Donovan,” Freiman says. “They probably paid a few hundred dollars for them. Now what do they go for, a million?”
Donovan, now based in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, attended VCU’s School of the Arts. Her many honors include a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Reynolds once bought a group of Donovan’s sculptures so that the then-struggling artist could have some money in her pocket to keep her going.
Freiman says that Reynolds, besides advising people on what art to buy, also helped some of the region’s biggest companies — Altria, Markel and Capital One — in making purchases of corporate art.
Photo by Sally Mann
Reynolds travels with her friend, Markel Corp. CEO Alan Kirshner, to a New York City gallery show by photographer Sally Mann in 2003. Mann, who took this photo, recalls the trip: "It was such a special day. First of all, how often do ANY of us get to fly anywhere in a private jet? … We visited galleries and the home/studio of a great artist named Barton Benes, stopped in Harry Winston to try on some diamond jewelry, and had a nice boozy lunch. Bev was radiant (even before the boozy lunch) and happy to be back in her old stomping ground where art and culture ARE the everyday currency. What a beautiful person, inside and out: so elegant and so warm, such a true friend."
Adrienne Hines, a former executive director of development at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, says that the Reynolds Gallery has a wonderful reputation in New York and Washington.
“It was unusual to have a gallery as fabulous as hers in a place like Richmond,” Hines observes.
Nancy Stutts, one of Reynolds’ longtime friends, says that the art scene in Richmond “was kind of deadsville” when Reynolds arrived. Stutts remembers entering countless homes where the art corner was filled with collections of ducks — eagles, too, sometimes.
“There was really no style here,” she says. “Old Richmond was the kind of standard people tried to live up to, and Bev was not at all interested.”
Stutts was 24 when she met Reynolds, who then was 28. “She seemed so worldly,” Stutts recalls.
The two friends grew up in an era when many parents still wanted their daughters to go to college, find someone who would make a worthy husband and then get married, Stutts says. Having a career wasn’t a high expectation.
Stutts, who was then a new mother, says Reynolds, who would eventually have four children, gently urged her to get out of the house and consider a job, because having a career didn’t mean you had to forget about having a family.
“She believed in the sanctity of family,” Stutts says, but Reynolds also believed that balancing a career with a family could help a person, especially a young woman, become more organized.
“So, she helped me with that transition,” Stutts says, noting that at the time there was no real model for a professional woman.
Stutts went on to form the Connect Network, an online resource hub for advancing local community engagement that currently maintains 7,000 members, and to earn a doctorate.
Today, Stutts is interim chair of the Master of Public Administration Program and Nonprofit Studies at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
Stutts says that no one ever had to wonder about Reynolds’ passion for contemporary art. “She was very powerful and very convincing. She was an extrovert of the highest magnitude,” Stutts says. “She opened Richmond’s eyes to the broader art world.”
tutts says that Reynolds had a sense of style, grace and beauty honed in the art galleries of New York City, and among cultivated dealers and collectors. And she used her training and her background to reshape what Richmond thought was culturally important.
Reynolds insisted that she never set out to make change when she moved to Richmond, but she was moved to act on behalf of others.
“She [said] the one light in Richmond’s cultural scene at that time was a group of extraordinary artists, who were unknown, unpaid, unappreciated and working in obscurity,” Stutts recalls.
“So that was the incredible opportunity she saw, and set out to do something about it, but it was really hard, too.”
Reynolds, the daughter of a leader in the Methodist church, said her aesthetic appreciation of how things were made developed, in part, from watching her mother make her own clothes.
“She loved the aesthetics of beautiful fabrics and could create these wonderful designs with great detail and beauty,” Reynolds said in the interview with her daughters.
Although Reynolds was committed and serious about the role and importance of contemporary art, Stutts says she also was fun-loving around family and friends.
“She [loved] to celebrate life, her children’s birthdays,” Stutts says, and every Valentine’s Day, she had her friends over to her house for a party.
“She made pink cupcakes shaped like a heart and served champagne. I’ve been so lucky to have Bev as a friend.”
Carolyn Snow, another close friend, recalled the Halloween parties that Reynolds would hold yearly at her home. The parents partied while their children went trick-or-treating through the Allen Avenue area.
Snow says that Reynolds, although desperately ill, had planned another Halloween party for 2014. But the party was canceled when Reynolds’ condition worsened.
In the year leading up to the ICA’s groundbreaking in October, Reynolds’ friends decided they would try to raise money so that some part of the institute could be named in her honor. There was no goal, but suddenly money started coming in, from big donors as well as from those who sent $10 to $1,000.
Eventually, the totals eclipsed $3 million, which bought naming rights for a first-floor gallery. Snow says it was far beyond all expectations.
“People gave from the heart,” she says.
Snow adds that one of Reynolds’ many attributes was her reputation for never saying anything negative about another person.
Reynolds was mindful of the roots of contemporary art in Richmond and was attentive to a chief pioneer, Theresa Pollak, who preceded her. Pollak is revered in Richmond art circles for founding VCU’s School of the Arts, which had its inception as a single art class that Pollak taught at night.
Snow says that when Pollak became frail in the latter part of her life, Reynolds “became like a daughter to her,” visiting her bedside and talking about art and life.
Reynolds persuaded Pollak, who died in 2002, to exhibit and sell some of her paintings, beginning in the 1980s. Pollak had never considered that her art could be commercial, but her paintings moved fast when Reynolds put them on the market.
In addition to her husband and daugthers, Reynolds is survived by two sons Alec and Quentin. As news of Reynolds’ death spread in late November, Sally Mann, the plain spoken star photographer, had a visceral reaction when she heard it.
“I feel like the heart has just been sucked right out of me ... and in a sense, out of the art scene in Richmond,” Mann says. “She will be one hell of a tough act to follow.”