Salvage Work: After the Arts District Bomb
By Jeannette M. Knapp
What started as a new frontier for the arts in Richmond ended up as a cultural Hiroshima for a significant block of Broad Street. The Empire Theatre has been closed since January. Nearby buildings are boarded up and covered with posters warning of a Second Coming. Across the street, the doors to the Masonic Temple building, once the center for much of the influential art activity in the city, are padlocked.
The Temple’s padlocked doors have been all too symbolic of the wall that went up between artists and art officials in Richmond in the aftermath of the Arts District debacle, which caused the eviction of over 20 artists from the Temple building to make way for the grand plan.
Until now, the artists have not talked publicly about the Temple building eviction. Now that they are talking, it becomes very clear that the Arts District bomb created more fallout than a block of empty buildings. It divided artists and arts officials, and the groups are just now patching things up.
When the city purchased the Temple building for $175,000 in 1981 and donated it to the Arts District Foundation, its primary interest was in stabilizing a blighted area of Broad Street. Already in place was the Empire Theatre complex, which had been used for dances, concerts and plays since 1977. The Temple building was to have been converted into a facility with studios, galleries, rehearsal space, workshops, offices, a theater and a performing arts high school. Lofts, apartments, restraurants and shops were envisioned in the old Richmond Dairy and adjacent properties. The Arts District would attract tourists and spur improvement of neighboring Jackson Ward, it was hoped. It fit perfectly into the city’s plan for downtown revitalization.
But instead of being incorporated into the Arts District, the 20-plus artists were forced out after a city inspector declared that their presence in the Temple building was a violation of city code.
It is likely the artists would have been forced out anyway. Revitalization to the city is gentrification to artists. Jerry Donato, a Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member and former Temple building occupant, remarks, “The Arts District was a real estate deal to bring up property values, and they were using artists to do it.” To say the artists felt used would be extreme understatement.
The artists fled Broad Street for new quarters, many in Shockoe Bottom, where they may be shielded, ironically, by lack of a flood wall. Developers who have followed their lead into other sections of the city — subsequently upping property values and forcing the artists out — aren’t likely to try to turn the unprotected Shockoe BOttom into another trendy Shockoe Slip.
The paranoia about dislocation is not a thin wash. “It’s like Soho,” explains artist Daniel Brisbane. “Artists discovered it and it was a great place to work in. Now it’s unaffordable, full of shops and restaurants. The same thing happened here. Artists discovered the Fan, the Bowers Coffee Building and the Masonic Temple building and were chased out by developers.”
Now there is no Arts District and the Temple building sits empty; the city is trying to sell it. The artists still lament its loss. Studios as large as 40 feet by 60 feet — enough space for several artists to share — could be had in the Temple building for as little as $108 a month. With 14-foot ceilings, artists had the important option of working with large canvases, says artist and former occupant Jane Sandelin.
The building certainly had its problems, but the artists seemed more than willing to trade comfort for the freedom of space. In the catalogue to an Anderson Gallery exhibit entitled, “Alumni of the Masonic Temple,” artist Glenda Miller Creamer comments: “Despite thirty degree temperatures in the winter, falling plaster, clogged toliets, derelicts and debris… it was a forum for the exchange of ideas.” And Holly Sears writes: “Inherent to the building was an atmosphere conductive to productivity as well as mutual support from fellow artists, a rare find outside of the academic circle in this city.”
For the artists, a final straw in the Arts District bungling was a perception that the Arts District Foundation was favoring performing artists over visual artists, because actors, musicians and dancers are capable of attracting paying audiences and generating more revenue than painters or sculptors. “The Masonic Temple was sold out from under the artists by the people who were supposed to be supporting them,” says David E. Thompson, an artist who now serves on the Board of Directors of the Arts Council.
Blanketing the entire controversy was a dispute over the very concept of the Arts District: The professional artists deplored the intended commercialization of the area and felt serious art could not be produced in a tourist trap. The Arts Council argues that the retail component was necessary to the economic viability of the district.
While it seemed the Arts Council had done everything right — researched the project, hired consultants, formed an independent foundation to implement its plans, secured a commitment from the city and funds from CSX Corporation — everything that could have gone wrong did.
Federal monies planned on during the Carter administration fizzled when Reagan took office. Likewise, city support for the Arts District waned when Henry Marsh lost the mayorship in 1982. There was competition for local arts money from no fewer than eight other arts-related projects — the Virginia Museum, the Virginia Center For the Performing Arts, the Science Museum, Projection I, the Hotel Jefferson, State Capitol, Jackson Ward and Main-to-James developments.
The Arts District Foundation also had to fight minor skirmishes with Broad Street property owners who differed with the Foundation on the best way to develop the area. James E. (Plunky) Branch Jr., former executive director of the Arts District Foundation, claims real estate prices were so inflated that it made it impossible for his group to buy the designated buildings. “For two years I tried to raise two million [dollars] earmarked for the purchase of the Empire complex,” says Branch. “When we faltered, the price dropped to $750,000. One week later, it was given away.” (Central Fidelity Bank purchased the Empire from developer Mitchell Kambliss and has offered the building to the Virginia Opera Association.)
Kambiss, however, says the Arts District Foundation never entered into a contract with the Empire nor was he aware of any negotiations to purchase other properties in the area, a move he feels was key to the district’s success. Kambiss also claims that if the Arts Council had relinquished control of the project, the area could have and would have been developed by property owners.
However, that never happened. After final fund-raising efforts to save the project failed, the Foundation looked for a private developer to develop the Temple building and lease it back to the Foundation. None was found, and the plans were halted.
The Arts District plan had completely crumbled along with the relationship between the arts groups and the artists.
Feelings are on the mend, however. What the artists lost in the struggle over the Arts District, they have regained in what appears to be a heightened respect for the city’s visual artists among those at the Arts Council.
Thompson refers to a “sense of awareness at the Arts Council now.” Mrs. R. Spencer Hines, Arts Council board chairwoman, says. “We’ve done more recently for the visual artists, and I think it has heightened their awareness of us.” She cites the inclusion of the Tredegar Iron Works Exhibit at June Jubilee last year as a showcase for the visual arts. And she notes the Arts Council is drawing attention to local artists by sponsoring Richmond coverage in a nationally distributed publication, The New Art Examiner. In addition, the Arts Council has undergone an organizational change, replacing its old membership structure with a panel system. “It is designed to provide the Arts Council with greater access to its constituency and was done in response to a suggestion to expand activities with individual artists while maintaining service to organizations,” Hines explains.
The Temple doors may remain padlocked, but the lines of communication, at least, have been reopened.