In Richmond, A Thriving Arts Scene

Once the ignominious capital of the U.S. Confederacy, Richmond is now known for something entirely different: a progressive and thriving arts scene.

I can’t decide which street mural I like best: the purple camel or the bees riding unicycles? Maybe the portrait of a boy playing the violin? The woman squeezed into a jar of strawberries?

After a day of exploring art in Richmond, I decide that the best thing about the elaborate, often bright, sometimes kooky murals that pop up around every corner is not each individual work, but the overall effect they have on this midsize city, so saturated in creative spirit that it makes me feel as though I, too, should pick up a paintbrush and join in.

People are still exclaiming over Richmond’s transformation during the last two decades, from stodgy repository of Confederate history to a vibrant, young community of creatives. It still attracts history buffs eager to explore the American Civil War Center and stately Monument Avenue, with its imposing statues of Confederate heroes on horseback (as well as a controversial statue of native son and tennis star Arthur Ashe, which became a focal point of racial tensions upon its unveiling in 1996). But the city also draws outdoor enthusiasts to parks veined with hiking and biking trails, and to the James River, where they can kayak the only Class 5 rapids that run through any U.S. city. Outside Magazine voted it America’s Best River Town in 2012.

And art is everywhere.

I first visited Richmond for a tour of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. Since my daughter enrolled two years ago, I’ve visited the city many times, but what I did not know until recently is the extent to which VCUarts, ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2012 among public art schools by U.S. News & World Report, has influenced the art scene there.

“The students are a main ingredient for the vitality of the arts in Richmond,” says John Bryan, who was dean of VCUarts for 23 years and now heads CultureWorks, Richmond’s arts advocacy organization. A third of VCUarts graduates stay in the city to start their careers, and their presence is palpable. They’re one reason Richmond boasts 1,000 active bands, scores of art galleries and status as the third-most-tattooed city in the U.S. (according to the Today show).

Even Bryan, who turned 65 this year, has a tattoo on his calf. Dozens of equally unlikely “tattoo virgins” have the same one—a three-bar design thought to be the oldest tattoo in history. Now an emblem of arts and culture advocacy in Richmond (its original symbolism is unclear), it’s offered as an optional thank-you gift for CultureWorks donations and comes with a card explaining the relationship between body art and philanthropy: “Strong arts and culture are permanent, enduring, essential components of great communities.”

Ed Trask’s tattoos are more conventionally sized, covering his upper arms—but conventional is not a word I’d use to describe him. When I first meet Trask, he’s wearing paint-spattered shorts and his signature straw fedora, taking a break from two street murals he’s completing on a sunny summer day. The city’s best-known muralist, Trask, 47, graduated from VCUarts in 1992, when he was steeped in the punk-rock scene. Because galleries were ignoring him, he followed his mantra, “better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” and turned to Richmond’s outdoor spaces. He’s been busy filling that vast canvas ever since.

Trask takes me to an outdoor art gallery of murals, the result of a three-day street art festival he organized in 2012. More than a dozen street artists created several 18-by-32-foot murals on the abandoned James River Power Plant building and flood wall here. Trask’s own painting, of a trolley car that recalls Richmond’s old electric car system, stands alone on a flood wall nearby.

“This area was really kind of dark,” Trask explains. “Nobody came down here.” But he thought they should: It’s just steps from the river, and is now part of the city’s Canal Walk, a 1.25-mile passage providing access to the James River. “I just had a dream of making it an outdoor gallery,” he says.

The paintings depict river scenes, superheroes, and a giant bull’s-eye with human torsos stuck to it like arrows. At one end of the space, a voluptuous madam’s words, painted on a ribbon floating around her head, whisper, “James, is that you I smell?”

 

Some locals were upset that she might be implying that their beloved James River has an unsavory aroma. Trask doesn’t mind. “I want to use street art to elicit conversations,” he says.

A second festival in 2013 transformed an abandoned bus depot into a wide corridor of giant art, and the conversation turned to creating more pedestrian-friendly spaces.

And a separate effort, the Richmond Mural Project (run by D.C.-based Art Whino), invites internationally renowned street artists to turn Richmond into a gallery of the best street art in the world. Over the last three years, visiting artists have contributed more than 60 murals. The project aims for a total of 100.

The art reveals itself at seemingly every turn: outside cafés and galleries, beside clothing stores and apartment buildings, on the sides of historic townhomes, and in alleyways and on boarded-up buildings. Some is commissioned, but much is not.

“These people have nothing,” says Trask of the Richmonders who live near one recent, unsolicited work he painted for a particularly blighted neighborhood. “I wanted to bring in some color.”

That spirit of “anything goes” also carries through to many of the galleries in the city, which range from edgy, experimental art studios run by recent college grads to highly polished, sophisticated showrooms. I set out with my daughter to explore some of them during a First Friday, when the galleries coordinate their openings with special events and other attractions around town.

The heart of First Fridays is Broad Street, a main drag not far from VCU. Mingling with tattooed and pierced millennials, as well as carefully coiffed Southern sons and daughters, we stop at craft booths and a miniature farmers market in one alleyway, then consider whether to pay to dress up in feather boas or fake beards and have our photo taken.

There are lacy abstracts in Gallery EDIT (located inside the Hillside/ World Horizons headquarters on Broad Street), where the artists are missionaries committed to spreading Christianity through their art. Next door, at Art6, we make our way through what appear to be bedrooms converted into art spaces, each with a different artist’s work, and then stand on a balcony to watch a belly dance performance below.

As the evening progresses, we see highly detailed landscapes, fanciful portraits, carefully rendered photography and bold, color-saturated abstracts. We hear a trio of bluegrass musicians, listen to a DJ spin on a street corner, and watch fire dancers twirl their batons.

My favorite stop is Atlas, a teen art center run by Art 180 on Marshall Street, just off Broad Street. More art camp than gallery, Art 180 is a perfect example of how deeply art is integrated into this city. Operating on the concept that art can help kids and communities turn around “180” degrees, its weeks-long instructional programs are designed to give children living in challenging circumstances a way to express themselves. Their creative works are displayed at Atlas on First Fridays.

The night we walk into this lively space, the big question, What do you stand for?, is one the kids have answered with life-size self-portraits. We visitors pick up colored chalk to write or draw our own answers on a community chalkboard. Then we immerse ourselves in some of the children’s comments about art, posted on the walls:  
“Art lets me concentrate and think about stuff from the past.”
“In this piece of art, I restore peace to the world.”

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibits are more refined. A world-class art center with 33,000 works from almost every major world culture, it underwent a $150 million expansion that was completed in 2010, and now boasts an airy atrium, multiple galleries and enough art to keep me coming back again and again.

On my last visit, I had a few minutes to kill before one of the free guided tours, so I took a seat in the café to wait. It overlooks a lily pond punctuated by artist Dale Chihuly’s slender glass reeds, a remembrance of the spectacular 2012 exhibit when he displayed a 3,000-pound chandelier, among other works. Just beyond the pond, sculptures and shade trees dot a vast lawn, fountains burble, and people from the surrounding neighborhood walk their dogs across the grass.

At 11 a.m., some 20 teenagers gather for the tour, though usually groups are more mixed. The docent begins with a bit of history—the museum was opened during the Depression and saved by a challenge grant met by the Virginia General Assembly—and then leads us to a few highlights, providing juicy details about the works as we go.

We learn that American sculptor William Wetmore Story was self-taught, though you’d never guess it from his contemplative Cleopatra, her naked breast signifying great power, her suicide foreshadowed by the viper peering from her headdress. In the European galleries, we are told that the intricately crafted stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral is the original, and once hung in the Louvre.

We see a collection of jeweled Fabergé picture frames and hear that the original owners, the Romanovs, stuffed jewels in their bodices when they fled the Russian revolution. In the Mid to Late 20th-Century gallery, we learn that “the bad boy of art,” Julian Schna­bel, wore pajama pants to his openings, and painted his dark Understanding Self-Hate on black velvet.

We also see Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series and one of Mark Rothko’s distilled color compositions. After the tour, I go back to browse the impressionists—Van Gogh, Renoir and Manet—and peek in at the art deco collection of furniture and decorative arts, leaving the African, East Asian, Pre-Columbian and Ancient art for another visit.

Summing up the VMFA collection in a style reminiscent of the street art that first captured my attention is Ryan McGinness’ vibrant collage of 200 icons, representing individual works at the museum. The painting, called Art History Is Not Linear, was commissioned for the 2010 opening of the museum’s new wing; and the exhibit, Studio

Visit, re-creates the work in progress, with paints and spray bottles and propped-up canvases littering the room, and a video of the artist at work.

I sit down on the “studio” couch to think about the range of art I’ve seen both at the museum and in Richmond. There is a living quality to it, as if it is constantly being refreshed, and viewed from new perspectives. The museum renovation is one indication; the nature of street art, painted on buildings that may soon be demolished, is another. But the overall affect is enduring.

Acknowledging his murals may be destroyed when development takes over, Trask is undeterred: “The legacy we start with this art is gonna last forever.”

Virginia Myers is a great fan of the creative, the artistic and the quirky, wherever she finds it. She is a frequent contributor to Arlington Magazine.


 

If You Go

Getting There

From Arlington, the drive to Richmond is an hour and 40 minutes, depending on traffic. It’s a straight shot south down I-95; there are several exits that serve Richmond. For Broad Street art galleries, take Exit 76B toward US-1/US-301/Belvidere Street. Go left on West Leigh Street/VA-33 at the end of the exit ramp. Take the second right onto US-1/US-301/Belvidere Street for just 3/10 of a mile, then go left on West Broad.
For the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, use Exit 78 to get onto Boulevard and go right off the exit ramp; the museum is about a mile and a half south on Boulevard.

Where to Stay

For a comprehensive list of Richmond hotels, see www.visitrichmondva.com. To be close to the art galleries, look for downtown locations. For the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, see also the Fan District.

The Jefferson (101 West Franklin St., 804-649-4750, www.jeffersonhotel.com) is located within a 10-minute walk of local galleries. Built in 1895, it was opulent from the start, with a life-size marble statue of Jefferson, billiard rooms and Turkish and Russian baths; later there were alligators in a marble pool in the courtyard. The restored hotel still features many elements from its past, including a sweeping marble staircase in the lobby, stained-glass windows and antique furnishings. Rooms are spacious, but not every visitor stays overnight. Tourists come to ogle the architecture, or to sample afternoon tea in the Palm Court or Sunday brunch in the Rotunda. Rates: $255–$2,100 per night, plus tax. Includes daily newspaper delivery, Wi-Fi, fitness center with indoor pool and local transportation service.

Linden Row Inn (100 East Franklin St., 804-783-7000, www.lindenrowinn.com). Built in 1847, the group of seven row houses is arranged around a lovely brick courtyard, once the garden where Edgar Allan Poe spent his childhood (and now the occasional site for weddings). The 70 rooms are furnished with antiques and vary from small, hotel-like accommodations (Garden Rooms) to expansive spaces with high ceilings, tall window bays and marble fireplaces (Parlour Suites). Think opulent but quirky: There’s no place to set your cosmetics in the bathroom, but you’ll get a kick out of the vintage wallpaper, fussy chandeliers and velvet upholstery. Rates: $99–$399 per night, plus tax. Includes continental breakfast, Wi-Fi, free shuttle service within 2 miles and health club privileges at the YMCA a block away.  

Where to Eat

Comfort (200 West Broad St., 804-780-0004, www.comfortrva.com) serves lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. and Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m. This cozy but well-appointed restaurant/bar has a “meat-and-three” menu featuring locally sourced ingredients—right down to the liquor. Look for delicious sides such as fried okra, roasted beets and squash casserole; Southern favorites like fried catfish and chicken-fried steak; house-made pickles (including pickled ramps); plus friendly service and an appetizing presentation. Dinner entrées $16-$28; lunch $7-$11.

The Daily Kitchen and Bar (2934 West Cary St., 804-342-8990, thedailykitchenandbar.com) serves dinner daily, 4-11 p.m.; lunch Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; breakfast Monday-Saturday, 7-11 a.m. and Sunday, 7-10 a.m.; brunch Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. It also offers a late-night menu Friday and Saturday, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. The open layout with green banquettes and lacy, bare-branched trees is somehow soothing and energizing all at once at this popular spot in the heart of Carytown. The menu, heavily influenced by locally sourced ingredients, caters to all sorts of food preferences, from meat-and-potatoes to vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and paleo. Selections range from an Angus filet with fig-balsamic demi-glace, to a curried lentil bowl with quinoa and veggies, plus several seafood selections, sandwiches, salads and pizza. Dinner entrées $9.95-$25.95; lunch $7.95-$15.95.

Kuba Kuba (1601 Park Ave., 804-355-8817, kubakuba.info) is open Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. You’ll find Kuba Kuba on the corner with the enormous mural of a Latin-flavored street scene. The bodega-style restaurant, with its  energetic vibe and long and delicious menu of Cuban food, is known for classics like paella, ropa vieja (shredded beef) or moros y cristianos (black beans and rice); or choose from 17 variations on eggs for breakfast all day. $4.95-$19.95.  

Lift (218 West Broad St., 804-334-LIFT, www.liftcoffeeshop.com) is open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. A quintessential artsy college coffee shop, Lift is in the middle of the arts district with a full menu of coffee drinks, sandwiches and salads, and a bulletin board  that you can peruse to find the next art show or burlesque class. The tattooed young staff is friendly and the brownies are great. Sandwiches and salads $6.50-$9.25.

Proper Pie Co. (2505 East Broad St., #100, 804-343-7437, Facebook/ProperPieCo) is open Wednesday-Saturday, noon-7 p.m.; Sunday noon-6 p.m. (Closed in August.) This fun and funky shop serves up sweet pies like blueberry apple or strawberry rhubarb, as well as savories like steak, mushroom and “blue” cheese; or roast butternut, bean and feta. The little pork pies are so popular that locals order them in advance. Owner Neil Smith strives to duplicate and enhance his native New Zealand’s pie tradition. Takeout only, though there are a handful of counter seats. $4-$6 for an individual serving-size pie.

Things to Do

First Fridays

Many galleries, restaurants and shops around Richmond time their art openings for the first Friday of every month. I especially enjoyed Quirk (311 West Broad St.), a combination gallery and shop full of, yes, quirky finds like pink deer antlers molded from epoxy and cocktail shakers made from mason jars. Expect some extra fun at Art6 (6 East Broad St.) and Art 180 (114 West Marshall St.), where you’ll remember why people make art in the first place. Don’t forget the galleries on Main Street, including Page Bond (1625 West Main St.) and Glave Kocen (1620 West Main St.), which showed Ed Trask’s gallery work this year. For a list and map of some (though not all) of the participants, go to www.rvafirstfridays.com. For more galleries (on and off First Fridays), see www.visitrichmondva.com/events/arts-entertainment/galleries-museums.

Street Art

Street art is everywhere in Richmond, but there are a couple of spots that are particularly notable. The 2012 Street Art Festival gallery at the corner of Canal and 12th streets in the neighborhood called Shockoe Bottom has sculptural images as well as paintings. The abandoned bus depot, on Cary Street between South Davis Avenue and North Robinson Street, has a wide variety of outdoor paintings and sculptures from the 2013 festival. For a map of muralist Ed Trask’s work, go to www.edtrask.com/trask-around-town-rva. For some of the Richmond Mural Project work, see www.artwhino.com/murals.

Carytown

Richmond’s funky, hip shopping district has plenty of artistic flavor, with nine blocks of locally owned, one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants and the occasional street musician to liven things up. In a happy mix of art and commerce, you’ll find locally rendered paintings and crafts in gift shops as well as a handful of galleries and nearly a dozen consignment/vintage shops. Some favorites include Mongrel (creative gifts and books, 2924 West Cary St.), Chop Suey Books (new and used books plus artsy accents, 2913 West Cary St.), Clementine (consignment, 3118 West Cary St.) and The Stolen Pig (hand-crafted art and gifts, 3463 West Cary St.).

All the Rest

In addition to visual art, Richmond has a full menu of music and other performing arts, historic and outdoor activities. To explore the options, see www.visitrichmondva.com.

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