First Fridays Art Walk Galleries Hope For a District

April 12, 2011

By Christian Wright
Multimedia Journalism Graduate Program

RICHMOND, Va. – Every first Friday of the month, a sleepy section of Broad Street here in downtown Richmond experiences a frenzy of activity.

First Fridays Art Walk brings thousands of people to the art galleries that open their doors to the public. On the sidewalks, street vendors, musicians and activists dot the concrete that take advantage of this influx of traffic.

The art galleries, through the efforts of Curated Culture, an organization that curates First Fridays Art Walk, wants the city to recognize and organize an arts district in the neighborhood First Fridays Art Walk occurs.

“It’s been discussed for twenty years,” said Christina Newton, director of Curated Culture.

“We knew with the success of cultural districts across the country that we had the makings of a cultural district here in Richmond,” Newton said.

It wasn’t until Mayor Dwight Jones came into office that the city became interested in developing the district.

“Part of forming an arts district is to capture the positive energy that is forming on Broad Street and to use that to help spur redevelopment, revitalization, and reinvestment in the buildings there,” said Nicholas Feucht, special assistant to the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer in the Economic and Community Development office.

Nicholas Feute Soundbite

The Mayor proposed a 65-block district in downtown, stretching from Belvidere Street eastward and ending at Capitol Square in the west, while Leigh Street and the Richmond Ballet are its north-south boundaries respectively.

As part of the Mayor’s plan, the city plans on extending a loan program to improve storefronts and a microloan program for improvements small businesses can make, such as getting a new freezer or installing a new transom wall for art.

“These small loans can allow businesses to have what they need to get over that small start-up hump,” Feucht said.

“It’s very vague,” Newton said. “It goes against what are successful components of arts and cultural districts.”

The art galleries’ plan is much different in tone and character from the Mayor’s plan. The boundaries of the district are smaller in size than the Mayor’s and instead of a micro-lending program the city would place tax incentives for non-profits all across the city, not just for businesses and non-profits in the art district.

“Without incentives, there isn’t any reason to call this place an arts and cultural district,” Newton said.

“[The Mayor’s plan] is not good enough, and it is not what the community wants or needs,” Newton said.

View First Fridays Art Walk in a larger map

The push for an arts and cultural district began in earnest in 2009, when the City of Richmond was in midst of cracking down zoning violations at various art galleries for offering live music and other events outside of solely exhibiting art.

In 2009, the Virginia General Assembly also passed legislation that allowed cities and counties to create their own cultural districts.

While none of the current plans deals with that original problem, the new plans from the various all have one thing in common.

“We want Broad Street to be a continuous, vibrant link of businesses and activity,” Feucht said.

The art galleries that reside on Broad Street weren’t originally there. Many of them came from Shockoe Bottom, but were priced out of their spaces and were forced to move.

The area around Broad Street provided an ample opportunity for the art galleries to move to when they needed to relocate to a new space.

“Broad Street in the 90’s was depressed, a different area than it was now,” Newton said.

With the art galleries, and the First Fridays Art Walks, businesses have crept into the area, and the city believes they won’t leave soon.

“I don’t think we are at the point where so much investment has occurred that people are moving away from Broad Street,” Feucht said.

Grushon Wilson, owner of Talk of the Town unisex salon, explains the effect the art galleries had on business in the area.

“Before First Fridays Art Walk, it was dead around here, real quiet,” Wilson said.

“First Fridays bought excitement to the barber shop, to Broad Street, and the businesses around here,” Wilson said.

Drew Snyder, one of the owners of record store Steady Sounds, notes the draw to opening a business in the area.

“This part of Broad Street is an up-and-coming area, the rent is still low, and there is a lot of stuff going on,” Snyder said.

Chris Chandler Soundbite
Chris Chandler, of Comfort, talks about his restaurant and the effect of the art galleries.

Currently, the City Council is in the midst of going through the plan, and soon will vote on its passage.

The art galleries and Curated Culture continue to focus on First Fridays Art Walk, and to continue to bring businesses and people to the area.

“The goal isn’t to come just during First Fridays Art Walk, but to come back on a Wednesday to enjoy the gallery in a less crowded space,” Newton said.

“It is branding what already exists,” Newton said.