Art as Richmond’s Future

by James A. Bacon

Art in Richmond is busting out of the museums, universities and galleries and into the streets. The latest efflorescence occurred Saturday when a dozen nationally known street artists gathered to create an outdoor gallery along the James River Power Plant Building and Floodwall along the canal walk. Hundreds of people came on down to see the artists in action.

Jon Baliles… with beer cup in hand

The event was organized by Jon Baliles, who was inspired by seeing something similar in Venice, and Ed Trask, a musician and mural painter who recruited the other artists. Although Baliles works for the City of Richmond, he and Trask pulled off this event on their own initiative. It took about one year from conception to execution.

Craft booth.

Once upon at time, it’s fair to say, Richmond was a pretty stodgy place. It had some beautiful neighborhoods, most notably Church Hill and the Fan, and a fairly vibrant downtown. It had more than its share of Fortune 500 and other corporate headquarters, along with a good number of law firms, financiers and marketing/advertising professionals and a smatter of manufacturing. But the city was nobody’s idea of a center for innovation.

Chilling out at the art festival on a Saturday afternoon.

Richmond may never make it as a leading center of technological innovation. But it could become a respectable center for creative arts and the businesses that intersect with the arts. The Virginia Commonwealth University art program, rated the best of any public university in the country, lures a lot of artistic talent to the city. And many of those artists, like Trask, wind up staying.

Artists don’t tend to launch the kind of fast-growth companies that turn metropolitan areas into growth dynamos. But they do create an ambiance that other educated and creative people like to share. They create the conditions for entrepreneurial vitality by making Richmond the kind of place where executives from Capital One, Philip Morris or other corporate behemoths like to live when they get tired of working for the Man and want to start their own businesses.

Economically, Richmond is going through a difficult time right now. But it is reinventing itself from the ground up. Between the James River, the canal walk and the artistic community, the old Capital of the Confederacy is morphing into something very 21st century, something very exciting.

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  1. DJRippert Avatar

    “Richmond may never make it as a leading center of technological innovation. “.

    The only reason you write that is because you have given up the fight against Virginia’s incompetent state legislature.

    There is no fundamental reason blocking Richmond from becoming a center of technical innovation. However, there is one non-fundamental reason: our state government.

    It takes work to create a center of innovation. However, the work is far from insurmountable. Here are a few ideas:

    1. Go to Austin, TX. State capital. Far from the biggest city in the state. Center of innovation. The Austin metropolitan area is somewhat bigger than Richmond’s metropolitan area but not by a lot. The most striking demographic is that the City of Austin has been the hub of growth (rather than the suburbs) and contains about 1/2 of the metropolitan areas’s population.

    2. Study the University of Maryland (College Park)’s Computer Science Department. While the University of Maryland (College Park) ranks a respectable 55th among national universities it ranks an eye popping 14th among Computer Science departments. This has been a long running project by Maryland and it has exceeded all expectations. If you are a high school senior in Washington, DC – especially at an academically well regarded school – you can expect to see UMD representatives at one of your school assemblies talking up the merits of UMD’s CS department. Half the reason Virginia lags is simply a lack of effort.

    3. Richmond vs the suburbs: Virginia’s uniquely ridiculous approach to independent cities causes far more problems than it solves. When cities are within counties both the city and the surrounding suburbs are forced into a certain level of political detante. When the only thing stitching a city to its suburbs is the Clown Show then you end up with two entities that might as well be in different states if not in different countries. Every metrpolitan area in Virginia needs to strengthen the bonds between its city and that city’s suburbs. This strengthening needs to happen whether the Clown Show likes it or not. Right now, I perceive Richmond as unbelievably bifurcated – there’s the city and the surrounding suburbs. Richmond is too small to succeed in pieces. It must coaslesce into a whole.

    4. Sports: It’s interesting that one of your pictures features a man wearing a Washington Capitals jersey. Up here in the DC area, we have three independent jurisdictions (VA, MD, DC) and a host of localities. One unifying force is sports. Whther it’s George Mason basketball or Capitals hockey, people come together over sports. Will a small percentage of hoi polloy come together over ballet? Probably. But not like the way people come together over sports. Figure out something. Turbo-charge college lacrosse at the University of Richmond and watch what happens.

    5. Arts: You are over-estimating the ability of arts to create economic development. Places like Hampden in Baltimore have gone from white enclaves to artist communities to the betterment of the community. However, they have not kindled substantial economic development. If you want to cultivate arts then focus on popular music. Provide venues for live music in a concentrated area near places where well educated young people live. Let the bars stay open late. Hold public “block parties”. The second best thing to a successful local sports team is a successful local band.

    6. Housing: I have no idea how Richmond managed to build massive aluminum factories in the 1970s that are shuttered today. Someday, Jim Bacon will have to tell that story. However, it’s time to take the lemons and make lemonade. Those factories need to be rehabilitated or torn down. The land by the river has great potential. Too bad so much of that potential is squandered by the poor decisions of just 40 years ago.

    7. Racism: It must end. Period. No more rebel flags. No more Henrico County public high schools named after Confederate soldiers, no more Arthur Ashe incidents. Nothing shuts down the potential of a city like simmering racism. And, whether true or not, Richmond is perceived as one of the most racist cities in America. Every effort must be made, in a very public manner, to demonstrate that Richmond’s well deserved reputation as a center of racism is behind it.

    8. Crime: The rising and falling waves of violent crime in the city of Richmond must end. This has been largely accomplished in New York and Washington, DC. It can be done in Richmond too. Simply abating violent crime for a few years only to see it spike again is totally insufficient. The aggregate level of crime must be lowered. While all cities have too much crime many have found ways to put a lid on the spikes. Richmond must find such as way.

    Other than the incompetence of our state legislature, there is no reason that Richmond can’t have a center of innovation equal to that found in Austin, TX.

  2. I certainly agree that the arts alone cannot create economic development. If it did, Santa Fe would be a boom town. But the arts are an increasingly important part of what it takes to foster a region that is attractive to the creative class.

    I guess we’ll find out if big league sports is a critical part of the mix. I doubt it. I classify big league sports with convention centers and downtown retail as yesterday ‘s Chamber of Commerce panacea.

    I agree about the importance of the musical scene — and I don’t mean the symphony and opera. Richmond actually has a vibrant alternative music scene. There are a lot of bands that you’ve never heard of that tour the country and even Europe.

    Then there is my favorite institution, the French Film Festival that brings the elite of French cinema to Richmond every year. Along the same lines, there is the James River Writer’s Festival, the Folk Festival And all the amateur athletic events promoted by the Richmond Sports backers.

    Interestingly, most of the coolest things about this area come from the ground up. HOpefully, it’s a sign of a new generation of civic leadership that will transform the region from a good place to work and live into a great place.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Sports unites people across classes in ways that the arts never will. as for big league – a very good university program would more than suffice. If VCU played basketball as well as Louisville, Marquette or Cincinatti – you’d have what you need. A decent stadium would also be useful eve if it were too small for consideration of pro sports. Scott Stadium in Charlottesville seats 61,000 and is tied for #69 (with Chicago’s Soldier Field) in stadium capacity. Dave Matthews, the Rolling Stones, etc regularly sell out the stadium.

    Conventions are a non-starter until and unless you substantially upgrade the airport – which certainly can be done and has been done many other places – such as Austin.

    However, the big issue is high quality university programs in the fields that foster innovation. As far as I know, they just aren’t there. So long as that remains the case, Richmond will under-perform as an innovation hub.

    It would also help if some of the Richmond elite did what Ted Leonsis and Steve Case have done – namely, set up a big venture fund –

    While the fund takes the politically correct approach of saying it favors investments “East of the Mississippi” I have been told that DC – area investments move to the front of the line. This is more because it’s easier for Case, et al to keep track of local investments than any other reason.

    Interestingly, Ted Leonsis is also a professional sports team owner in DC. It seems that Mr. Leonsis gets the “full picture” of what needs to be done to keep an area vibrant.

  4. The Richmond elite had its fling with formal venture capital when Mark Warner toured the state during the 1990s fostering the set-up of venture funds everywhere. Monument Capital got off to a good start, raising enough capital to fund a dozen or so ventures. A number of them were quite promising. But they didn’t have enough time to mature before the Internet bubble burst. Every one of them got their money yanked from them, they all went out of business, and investors lost pretty much everything. Left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

    There is a “venture forum” that creates a venue where new ventures can be introduced to angel investors, but it has no capital of its own.

  5. I’m getting confused here. I thought Conservatives believed that govt should be small and unobtrusive on these matters and that it was up to the private sector to provide what the market wanted.

    Now.. I’m hearing from two self-acclaimed “conservatives” that it’s the government’s “fault” for the failings of Richmond and Virginia.

    If the people in Richmond want Arts or Sports – why don’t the people of Richmond make it happen without depending on govt?

    DJ seems to be promoting a very Top-Down approach to these things.

    by the way, Virginia explicitly encourages regional approaches to infrastructure and operations. We have planning districts and laws that favor regional alliances. What we don’t have are mechanisms that force regionalism over the selfish interests of local elected officials.

    School systems are a good example. Fairfax (and other localities) would never ever agree to a consolidated NoVa school system even though it would undoubtedly save gobs of money. School systems seem to function as the unique identity of counties and cities in Va.

    Charlotte has a consolidated school system with the county of Mecklinburg.

    can we imagine Fairfax/Loudoun Consolidated schools or Richmond/Henrico/Chesterfield?

    1. The people of Richmond have made it pretty clear that they’re not willing to commit taxpayer money to pay for the kind of stadium it takes to attract a AAA minor league team, much less a major league team. And they have acted on their own — donating their own money — to support musuems, the arts and, to a lesser degree, local universities. (The University of Richmond would not be what it is today without a massive gift from the Robins family.)

      I’m not sure which “two conservatives” you’re referring to who believe in a top-down approach to doing things, but please don’t lump me into that category. Many of the top-down projects in Richmond have been a failure. The Sixth Street Marketplace was a fiasco. So was the Main Street Station retail project. The convention center was touch-and-go for a long time. (I’m not sure what the latest numbers look like.)

      As I’ve long said, the best stuff bubbles up from the population. Someone gets a great idea and runs with it, it catches on, and it grows organically. The top-down, design-by-committee stuff rarely works

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      “Charlotte has a consolidated school system with the county of Mecklinburg.

      can we imagine Fairfax/Loudoun Consolidated schools or Richmond/Henrico/Chesterfield?”.

      You scare me.

      Charlotte is in the county of Mecklenburg. Only in Virginia are cities not almost always within counties (Baltimore, St Louis and Carson City are the only exceptions outside Virginia). Literally, LarryG – Virginia is a total, complete and absolute outlier.

      Chicago – Cook County
      Miami – Dade County
      Buffalo – Erie County
      Richmond – not in a county
      Alexandria – not in a county

      You getting the hang of this LarryG?

      Why has the Clown Show adopted such a completely unique structure? Because their heads are so far up their butts they don’t know if it’s day or night?

      As for explicitly encouraging regional approaches to solving problems – you must be living in Virginia, Mars. What happened to Tim Kaine’s blockbuster transportation bill passed by the General Assembly?

      The very constitution of Virginia prohibits regional authorities with any power – even if the General Assembly tries to give the regional authority any power.

      Like I said, you scare me.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Do we live in the same metro area? Don’t you know that the outdoor art scene that you like so much is under attack by various elements in the city? Read on:

    One of the most frustrating things about Richmond (you can guess that I am not a native) is that it has such much going for it but always, always shoots itself int he foot. Street art is no different. People such as yourself talk about it, but when you try to do it, you get put down. They also dream about being a big entertainment center but tut-tut when anyone has a good time on the street (might be Negroes!).
    And now, if you read the hapless Times-Disgrace, a bunch of city “leaders” are off to Boston to see how Beantown does it. The TD even printed a list of 100 plus names of the hoity-doity people going (this is considered NEWS in Richmond but I guess it is a lot cheaper than hiring a real reporter)
    Consider a quote from some mucky-muck saying that let’s be real, Richmond is not Boston. It doesn’t have the same sports or innovation.
    CHAAA! One can never escape from Richmond’s incredible and overwhelming parochialism! Transplants like me (who went to college in Boston no less) have to be treated like and talked down to like children.

    Now if you’d actually leave your basement office and saw the real Richmond . . .

    1. Gee, Peter, I actually *did* leave my basement, and I went to the art festival. That’s where the photos came from. And guess what, no one shut it down!

      By the way, what’s this all about? “Tut-tut when anyone has a good time on the street (might be Negroes!).”

      Richmond has loads of street festivals, and no one tut-tuts about the “Negroes” as you so offensively put it.

      Maybe you should get out of your Chesterfield cul de sac and see what’s going on downtown! Try partaking of the community. Visiting the Style office building does not count!!

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Well Tut-Tut on me!
    However, I don’t live on a cul-de-sac, I live near one (like you). I do get out of my house from time to time and spend hours waiting for the lights to change in the Hull Street Road exurbia.
    I am somewhat familiar with Richmond although I don’t enjoy the nightlife the way I used to. I once was a really cool Fan District guy crica 30 years ago. Now, age has me heading home much sooner.
    As far as race relations and street life, that’s not coming from me, it’s fairly well documented. Face it buddy, Richmond ain’t Austin! Why are you so apologetic about Richmond? You aren’t from here, either.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    “Richmond ain’t Austin!”.

    Austin wasn’t Austin until it decided to be Austin.

    It’s quaint to think that things will “bubble up”. They won’t. But I guess that’s the real crux of “the Richmond attitude” – no vision,

  9. ” The very constitution of Virginia prohibits regional authorities with any power – even if the General Assembly tries to give the regional authority any power.”

    what? Have you heard of the MWAA?


    there are regional authorities out the wazoo in Va DJ.

    food for thought: ” Camden County is a county located in the U.S. state of North Carolina. As of 2010, the population was 9,980. Its county seat is the community of Camden[1]. Camden County is the first and only consolidated city-county in the state.”

    ” The city’s public school system, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, is the second largest in North Carolina and 20th largest in the nation. In 2009 it won the NAEP Awards, the Nation’s Report Card for urban school systems with top honors among 18 city systems for 4th grade math, 2nd place among 8th graders.[45][46] About 132,000 students are taught in 161 separate elementary, middle and high schools.”

    Va DOES ALLOW consolidated school systems by the way as well as multi-jurisdiction regional authorities for water, sewer, police, jails, libraries, etc.

    for instance: Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools

    DJ is blaming the state for what Fairfax refuses to do itself.

    For instance, Fairfax is the only jurisdiction in Va that is allowed to have an income tax as long as the proceeds are used only for transportation and what did they do?

    Fairfax has George Mason and is perfectly capable of making it a premier national school in technology and computer science if they wished.

    Fairfax had the opportunity to get the Redskins and fumbled the ball.

    Fairfax is basically a bunch of good old boy developers lusting after land-development opportunities with someone else picking up the infrastructure costs.

  10. FreeDem Avatar

    James, late comment, but wanted to bring this to your attention:

    Richmond looks surprisingly close to the top for the Indie Music trendsetting, something I wouldn’t have predicted.

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