Richmonders berate themselves (and outsiders mock them) for their inability to decide where and how to build a baseball stadium for a AA baseball team. If the region’s political and civic leadership can’t pull off this most basic of regional tasks, one might legitimately wonder if they can accomplish anything useful at all. But it turns out that Richmonders can mobilize behind civic projects — it just has to be the right kind.
A case in point is Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art, which has raised $33 million of its $37 million funding goal. Construction of the facility, designed by an award-winning New York architect, is located at Belvidere and Broad, one of the region’s busiest intersections and a gateway to downtown. This project, which will showcase art from VCU, one of the nation’s leading art schools, has not been controversial at all. Funds were raised through contributions by local philanthropists. With help from a construction loan from the VCU Foundation, construction began in June.
A city and region define themselves by the long-term investments they make in civic infrastructure. To pick a very different example: Buffalo, N.Y., a region of comparable size to Richmond, has poured money into a pro football complex downtown more magnificent than anything than Richmonders could conceive of erecting in their own city — and locals still aren’t satisfied. Buffalo groups are exploring an even more grandiose facility. Richmond has nothing to compare. But it does have arts and culture out the wazoo. And we locals like it that way.
Speaking to the Richmond chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women, Institute Director Lisa Freiman outlined the vision. As reported by Virginia Business, the institute will showcase a changing array of exhibitions not only by VCU artists “but the best of contemporary art from around the world.” Freiman predicts that the facility “will create opportunities for cultural tourism and community revitalization.”
The tie-in between contemporary art and economic development is stronger in Richmond than it would be in many other regions. The advertising industry is remarkably vibrant for a region Richmond’s size. Local companies serve national clients, and they employ artists, graphic artists, videographers and the like. There is a easy, natural cross-over between the art world and the advertising world. Supporting one supports the other.
Meanwhile Richmond — and Virginia as a whole — is developing the reputation as an up-and-coming foodie region. Esquire Magazine has just named Virginia “The Food Region of 2014″ in its 2014 Food and Drink Awards. “The Old Dominion has seemingly overnight exploded into one of the country’s greatest gastro regions,” writes the magazine, as reported in the Times-Dispatch. While the recognition goes to Virginia as a whole, Richmond is a vibrant part of the state’s foodie scene. Rappahannock restaurant won recognition as one of the 12 “Best New Restaurants” in the country.
The article cited Virginia’s diverse geography and the ability to source fresh, locally grown produce and artisinal food products from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay as a big plus for restaurants aspiring to national quality. I’m sure that’s a factor, but I think the story is bigger than that. Richmond and Virginia produce great restaurants because the local marketplace supports them. People are willing to pay premium prices that restaurants must charge in order to recruit and pay chefs of national caliber.
New Yorkers and Washingtonians may laugh at Richmond’s pretensions in the worlds of art and cuisine — to many we’re still a hicksville backwater still fighting the Civil War. What they don’t see is how the region is steadily reinventing itself. Once the city prided itself on being a regional center of corporate headquarters. That prop to the economy suffered heavy damage during the recession of 2007-2008 and has been slow to recover. But there has been tremendous activity beneath the surface. Redevelopment along the downtown canal. The Richmond Folk Festival. Converting the James River into the region’s “Central Park.” The boom in downtown living. The French Film Festival. The gentrification of Church Hill and Scotts Addition. The creation of a fantastic network of mountain biking trails. The rise of the foodie movement and the renaissance of locally grown food.
Unconsciously, Richmond has been building the foundations of the “creative class” economy. It’s becoming the kind of place where creatives want to live, work and play. When creatives settle here, they start new businesses. In time, some of those businesses become success stories and economic dynamos that will propel regional growth. VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art symbolizes how Richmond is redefining itself as something very different and very new.