Ellyn Parker is a native Virginian, having moved back to Richmond from San Fransisco in April. In July, she was hired as Richmond's full-time public art coordinator. (Photo by Phillip C. Wong)
The city is sitting pretty on a public art fund of a little more than $3.2 million, its largest pot ever.
Earlier this year, it hired two nationally known public art consultants to come up with a smart, coherent way to spend that money, which is basically going to mean asking a lot of Richmonders this fall and winter for their big-picture vision for public art in the city. What should its function be? What should it say about Richmond and its people? How do we look at finding other sources of money for public art? The money now comes only from a many-strings-attached, 1-percent set aside of city construction projects costing more than $250,000. Richmond’s fund is as flush as it is now thanks in large part to the construction of the new jail.
To help carry out this vision once it’s articulated, the city hired a full-time public art coordinator in July. Ellyn Parker, 44, calls herself an accidental bureaucrat. “I like working in bureaucracy,” she says, “which makes me a little bit weird.”
Parker is a native Virginian who briefly attended Virginia Commonwealth University. She moved here in April from San Francisco, where she worked for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
“What Richmond gets in Ellyn Parker is an extraordinary, committed, passionate, understanding advocate and enabler of the arts,” Joaquín Torres, deputy director of that office, tells me. “She can traverse the bureaucracy and the creative world and understands how the two work together. She just knows her onions. She knows what she is doing. She knows where the barriers are. She understands that there is a process, but that there is always a way to get to a ‘yes’ in a way that is not just satisfying, but fulfilling for the people she is serving.”
When I first spoke to Parker, I was expecting the gray circumspection common among City Hall denizens when talking to the press. Instead, I got something closer to a Technicolor whirlwind.
RM: Why Richmond, why this job?
EP: To be blunt, San Francisco is an incredibly expensive city. I’m a single parent and financially, I needed to go. My daughter finished high school and basically many stars aligned. When I saw this position posted, I said, “Oh my gosh, I want this job.” My old job had me doing a mishmash of other things under the umbrella of economic and neighborhood development, but I also dealt with public safety, homelessness and mental health issues daily and I wanted to focus on the arts, as it was what I felt was the common denominator in solving these bigger societal issues. I’m passionate about art as a mechanism for a lot of things; not just making stuff look pretty, but as a catalyst for creating connections in community, for the ability to promote conversations that can tackle tough issues, and promote healing on both a societal and personal level. We devalue art and creativity a lot as a society, but I try to help reframe that view, as I deeply believe that the power of creative expression, in any art form, can create a more connected world at both a neighborhood and local level and at a global scale.
RM: How do you describe your job?
There are a couple different aspects. I’m the secretary to the Public Arts Commission, so I keep them to rules and procedures and make sure they are doing things in a transparent way. And there’s another part of managing the projects that are paid for through capital improvement projects. These are the bureaucratic parts of my job. As for the cool stuff, well, there is working in the community with the consultant team just getting started on a public art master plan. Some are criticizing them because they are from outside the city, but sometimes it takes an outside pair of eyes. That’s my strength, I’ve lived here, but I did the big city thing and I can see the potential here. That’s the fun part of it for me, to really get out into the community and find out what people want in public art.
RM: How do you look at public art?
As more than something static. Yes, there are the statues on Monument Avenue, but how do we create art that is really engaging? I come from the San Francisco lens where we had aerial dancers doing performances on big huge walls. You can do a ton of stuff with light projection. So, basically moving beyond murals and statues. Say a neighborhood needs a crosswalk. Well, how do we turn that into public art, something really bright so that the driver has to slow [down]. I am hopeful that my time in San Francisco can help bring some of the crazy ideas that we pulled off there: Pianos in public space as a conversation driver. Big, huge pieces of art that can change and be temporary. Art that involves sound and light and wind. There are great examples of art that can double as a play structure for kids. The possibilities are endless. And there is such an amazing art community here. There is the old school, the guerilla artists, VCU, all the people doing murals.
RM: A lot of silos.
Yes, there are pockets of people doing great stuff and we just need to talk to each other. I just need to make people talk to each other. But that’s what I do. I’m a creative catalyst. I make people talk to each other. We all have the same goal: a safe, thriving interesting place to live.
RM: When you look around Richmond now, what do you see?
Every neighborhood in Richmond has its own unique identity. It’s one of the things I love about it here. I think that as I learn more about each part of town, that it will help me to help the communities there to advocate and find art that is reflective about what is special about the character in each neighborhood.
The art is a mixture of both old and more modern abstract elements. I think that is a perfect reflection of Richmond as being a place with a deep history and an embrace of newness and creativity.
RM: The first public meeting for the public art master plan is Nov. 17. Here’s your chance to make your pitch for people to come.
This is not about what city government wants public art to look like in Richmond. It’s about what you want. Show up. Come out and talk about what you see Richmond’s unique character being. Talk about what you want out of public art and understand that public art can be defined as what the public wants. There are going to be lots of opportunities for collaboration. There will be other meetings. This will be a long process, and once the consultants have a draft plan, they have to present it to the community and the community has to approve it, and then it’s my job to make sure that it’s not just bound and stuck on a shelf. It’s my job to make sure it gets done.
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