I was able to get a few moments of Christina Newton’s busy schedule in order to ask her a few questions about the development of Richmond’s First Fridays local artist program (which I wrote a blog on earlier in the year) and the Curated Culture, Inc. non-profit organization that sponsors it. Here is a transcript of the interview.

Name: Christina Newton
Position within organization: Founder & Director 

Years at Curated Culture, Inc.:  4 (since inception)

1. How does Curated Culture, Inc. and its programs emulate the art,  culture and recreation of the city of Richmond?

This is a hard question. I see First Fridays as a showcase or platform of what our arts and cultural community has to offer as compared to “emulating” but that may just be semantics. The arts community has been hungry for a vehicle for the wealth of artistic talent here and the community at large hungers for “community”, entertainment, socializing, adventure, whatever you want to call it..energy maybe. First Fridays offers all these things.
2. Can you tell me a little about the Curated Culture, Inc. organization, how it was conceived and who are the people who comprise the Board of Directors and what kind of backgrounds do these board members have?
I developed the art walk idea and founded the “First Fridays On & Off Broad” steering committee in 2000 as then Director of Artspace gallery, which served as the lead organization and fiscal agent for the project. As Chair of the steering committee, I lead the effort and worked with reps from the participating galleries and museums at the time, which included 9 sites.

After two years, the steering committee realized that First Fridays was a major undertaking and that they (the galleries) could only dedicate so much time to it and that it needed dedicated coordination. The steering committee discussed and voted to move the event under the coordination of a separate nonprofit in Dec 2002, and Curated Culture, Inc. was founded in March 2003, which I was president and founder of. Our first board included some members form that steering committee and others from the arts community. We started honestly ‘around the kitchen table” and decided to go with “Curated Culture” as compared to “First Fridays” since the art walk events in some cities grew so much that there ended up not being a need for oversight, so we were preparing for the future when we would eventually not be needed. (coming up soon actually) Also, since there was so much that could also be done in RV! A for t he arts that wasn’t being done, we could eventually expand our programming to do other arts based events.

Our nonprofit organization, Curated Culture, is the group working behind the scenes coordinating First Fridays and the participating venues (galleries, creative businesses, restaurants) are partners in this project. We serve as the point of contact and do the programming, event coordination, PR, fund-raising, etc. whereas the venues plan what’s happening inside their spaces (monthly exhibitions, concerts, etc). We promote First Fridays, the event, which provides a trickle down promotion for those participating spaces.  

Our board is comprised of: artists, arts administrators, financial professionals, fund raisers, gallery owner, and people in the nonprofit field, including myself and: 

Dan Stackhouse, President (Community Idea Stations PBS/NPR)

Ethan Lindbloom, Treasurer (RBC Dain Rauscher)

Joseph Papa, Secretary (Library of Virginia)

Anne Hart Chay (Visual Art Studio)

Ann Pollock (community volunteer)

Sarah Owen (artist)

Sarah Johnston (Jackson-Field Girls Home)

David Hershey (UR Lora Robins Gallery)

3. The First Friday concept is one that is becoming popular across the nation and has been a staple of European cities for some time. Was the First Fridays program modeled after any other specific programs that have been successful in other locations?

I was very familiar with the concept in other cities and did hone and web research as to how it worked in other cities, including visiting DC, Charottesville, Philly, and San Antonio. (varying sized events) Finding out that Fredericksburg was having an “art walk” event was the final inspiration to get something going (“If Fredericksburg can do it…”)

4. Programs such as First Fridays often assist in stimulating areas of town that could use the economic assistance, has First Fridays in Richmond caused any such stimulation in urban areas (Old Historic Broad Street and elsewhere)? What kind of changes have occurred in these areas?

In 2000, the original idea was to coordinate and formalize the monthly opening receptions that were taking place at the few venues on Broad St and build awareness for these sites and the base of arts supporters that were coming down to the monthly openings. The sites were holding openings on the same night, but there was no partnerships or cross promotions. Some of the audience mixed but there wasn’t anything formal about it. So, our First Fridays art walk concept was, and still is, a marketing approach to get people to become more aware of the arts and culture taking place in Richmond as well as help revitalize n. 

Although the City will be hard pressed to give credit to our efforts, it is obvious that First Fridays has given life back to a once down and out area of town. This is why our mission is to “inspire community and economic development”. Over the last five years, new businesses, restaurants, residential housing, etc. have blossomed in downtown and continue to do so. We average approx 4,000 visitors per month to First Fridays, attracting more people downtown than any other ongoing event. Now with VCU moving east into Monroe Ward and Jackson Ward being overrun with development in both residential and commercial, downtown will soon be a thriving area of the city again. There is ongoing discussion as to the official designation of the Historic Broad St. area, some part of downtown, as an “Arts District” but it’s very complicated but I expect it to come together once the Va Performing Arts Foundations’ Richmond CenterStage facility is finished in 2009.

Other areas of Richmond that are being revitalized by the arts are of course West Main Street in the Fan and Manchester. There is continual discussion as to how to connect these three ‘arts districts” but nothing has come together yet.

5. With the addition of Second Saturdays, it is clear that the programs  under Curated Culture, Inc. are becoming successful, what does the future hold for the organization and what sorts of programs can the city of Richmond expect in the future?

I wouldn’t quite say that the development of Sec. Sat. proves our success, as much as we need to find a way to get people downtown other days than Fir. Fri. It’s a slow growing event idea that basically markets downtown to the public. .

6. What has Richmond’s artistic community’s history been like and how have artists been able to sustain themselves before programs such as First Friday came along?

There has always been a strong arts community although small, with VCU and UR’s arts schools. Many artists came to go to school and stayed to make Richmond their home (such as myself). The arts community was insulated but very supportive. VCU’s arts school has grown, as has UR’s, which has attracted more students to the city to take part in our arts community’s growth. Where the openings use to the artists social time, First Fridays has made it everyone’s social event. Consequently, not all the artists in the community have liked the growth of the program, but it’s also contributed to more galleries opening and more awareness and arts appreciation, which in turn create more opportunities for artists to show and sell their art. (We started with 9 sites in 2000 -! 5 of t hem galleries – and today we have 24 venues participating in First Fridays.)

First Fridays has increased awareness and appreciation of the Richmond Region as an arts and cultural community, where artists become more appreciated as part of the community. This creates a sense of pride for the artists and the community-at-large. The development of this cultural community in turn fosters an increased interest in having more venues to exhibit and sell their works. There are more galleries and creative businesses in Richmond than ever before and more artists then ever to fill them. Galleries are now usually booked more than a year in advance due to the multitude of artists living and working in the area. Gallery openings have always been the artists’ social scene as well, so this community has just gotten larger and includes a more diverse audience. First Fridays brings the artists and the arts enthusiasts together in community. 

7. How has First Friday transformed since its creation?

Some of this is answered in previous questions, but I’ll add..

First Sites: Artspace, 1708, Elegba Folklore Society, Corporate & Museum Frame, Black History Museum, Fire & Police Museum, Visual Art Studio, Valentine: Richmond History Center, Richmond Public Library

Today, we have 24 various venues, and some of the original sites still participate. Over time, venues have come and gone based on a variety of reasons, from closing, moving, to not wanting to participate, but each year, more and more venues come on board.

check out http://www.firstfridaysrichmond.com for more info.

8. How has the city’s government supported the First Friday program and its cause?

Sadly, all we have received from the City has been $4,000 (in-kind and financial contribution) over the last three years from the Dept of Economic Development. Otherwise, the city has been supportive only in verbal thanks or taking credit for the success of the program themselves (William Harrell). Generally we can’t get a phone call returned. We have received funding from Richmond Renaissance (now known as Venture Richmond which is a public private partnership) of $20,000 over two years.  

9. Is there anything else about Richmond’s First Friday that makes it unique in comparison similar programs?

First Fridays is important because it brings awareness for arts and culture to the forefront of the public’s mind. It is an educational experience in disguise. The arts are sometimes scene as an exclusionary experience or requiring great knowledge, when anyone and everyone should be a participant. It breaks barriers.

One of the best thing about Richmond’s First Fridays program, and something I am most proud about, is that it’s truly diverse in regards to the work that is on view and the audience that attends. In the past, Richmond has had, and still does, have segregated events, but First Fridays brings together people of all backgrounds, whether black or white, rich or poor, old or young, urbanite or suburbanite, local resident or tourist. Everyone comes together for an urban cultural experience, which cultivates an appreciation of arts and cultural, but also pride in community, and the revitalization of a once very down and out Downtown.

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  This past week 100 people from the greater Richmond area participated in the Greater Richmond Challenge.  The Greater Richmond Challenge is an annual event put on by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce.  This unique event gathers people from all walks of life to directly experience and address issues in Richmond and the surrounding counties.  The event is held over a period of 36 hours and is quite intense and involves tours of locations where problems exist, such as public housing projects and public schools.  The 100 participants are broken into five groups that each focus on one of the issue areas.  The five issue areas were crime and public safety, education, transportation, work-force development, and work-force housing. 

Hands on community based problem solving is a technique that has been used increasingly in both the public and private spheres.  Architects and planners often seek community input before beginning work in an area.  Local governments also seek input in the form of forums or brainstorming groups before taking action based solely on what public officials deem fit for an area.  By involving many minds and the community many issues are addressed that may have been overlooked by a public official or out of town architect.

By involving locals in problem solving a level of trust and understanding can be created between government, private interests, and the public.  I think this also helps to build community because it gives people ownership of actions that normally occur out of their hands.

http://www.inrich.com/cva/ric/news/community/richmond.apx.-content-articles-RTD-2007-05-12-0067.html

On May 6, a Style Weekly article addressed an issue that plagues many cities.  The problem is parking.  The dense nature of cities and our reliance on the automobile is the cause of this problem.  In the article John Sanchez a Puerto Rican native who wishes to open a restaurant in Church Hill is struggling with the issue of parking.  Richmond city code requires that you must provide a parking space for every 100 sq. ft.  of building space to open a new restaurant.  Sanchez has scoured the proximate area for this space and has had difficulty acquiring it.  The city offered has offered to lease him parking in a nearby parking lot, but zoning officials claimed this was against the zoning policy of this lot and declined it.  For a city and downtown area that is wishing to revitalize this seems counterproductive.  Shouldn’t the city be bending over backwards to bring people downtown without relying on an entrepreneurial restaurant owner who will bring interest and taxes to the city.  Not that the city should be devoting all their time to increasing automobile access to the city, on the contrary I think a system of light rail to bring people from outer areas into the city where they are able to rent or be driven by cab drivers in eco-friendly vehicles would be great.  Richmond has some scattered ground level parking on previously empty lots and multi-level parking structures  mostly offered by large private institutions.  While it provides necessary parking there is a problem within, why are there empty lots downtown?  Some of these lots have come in place of demolished older structures.  In an economically thriving downtown the market should demand more than this.  Parking could be made available at the street level with offices or other structure above or some parking and some street front retail on the first floor so as not to make a dead street front.  My preference would be to look past the immediate economic cost and to take parking underground.  Parking will continue to plague Richmond until the transportation issue is addressed, but it should be the responsibility of the city not small business owners.

After completing my term paper on scandals and ethics in city politics, I was interested to read in a Style Weekly article about corruption in the city of
Richmond.  At a City Council meeting, a plan was proposed that would grant City Auditor Umesh V. Dalal full law-enforcement status to investigate fraud and corruption in financial transactions, therefore strengthening internal controls that could investigate and deal with these types of claims.  A recent study estimates that about 6% of city revenue is lost to internal fraud; however, as I learned from my research, this figure is probably much higher because of the number of fraudulent transactions that go undetected.  This shows the need for tighter controls, and an inspector general would certainly make some impact in fighting or avoiding corruption.  The City Council currently has a tip hotline for city employees to report their suspicions of fraud.  The reward system in place gives 10% of the money saved by avoiding the fraudulent act to the city employee who reported it, with a cap of $5,000.  There is also a similar hotline for citizens who report acts of corruption.  Giving people money for reporting crimes concerning money seems a little ironic and unnecessary, but maybe the policy, as well as the creation of an inspector general position to monitor ethical behavior internally, embraces the reality that corruption is an inevitable part of politics and the only way to prevent it is to pay money to those who report it.

Does anyone else find the new inRichmond.com to be amusing?  “Powered” by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the new website seeks to combine the internet edition of the newspaper with other online resources into a one-stop community tool.  It even has an “obituaries” tab for late-night reading. 

Unfortunately, the somewhat entertaining new look, somewhat clever new name (inRich), and definitely too many links and advertisements on the homepage and throughout the website do not make up for the Times-Dispatch‘s lack of quality writing, journalism, and variety of stories.  Rather than renovating its website, perhaps the newspaper should try to treat the citizens of the Greater Richmond area with the respect they deserve and actually write in-depth, well-written articles about what’s going on in Virginia’s capital city and organize them in a logical way online.  A newspaper should be able to hold its own and have its own website, with virtually total devotion to the news, rather than simply be a part of a community website with a cheeky name.  I understand if the Times-Dispatch is looking to integrate itself with a website that receives more hits, or even if the newspaper seeks to become an “online community partner,” if you will.  But again, the new website does not make up for good, old-fashioned journalism. 

As a University of Richmond Oliver Hill Scholar and someone who focused on education in Richmond throughout this semester, I think its important to recognize Oliver Hill.  Mr Hill is an attorney who worked very hard in Virginia to achieve desegregation in public schools.  Mr. Hill was recently recognized for his 100th birthday. 

Despite past issues with funding and lack of support from the city’s mayor, in this article it is clear that many other city officials are still invested in improving the condition of Richmond Public Schools.  Specifically, Richmond’s City Council President, William Pantel has declared that the city is in need of new schools and will get them.  But, again city officials are not getting complete support from Mayor Wilder.  The mayor recently revised The City of the Future plan, which allotted public schools 180 million dollars.  Wilder’s new plan only gives schools 169 million dollars.  Despite members of the city council, who have urged Mayor Wilder to stick to his original plan, the Mayor has decided to stick by his decision. The council will still vote on plans for funding new constructions of Richmond public schools and hopes to begin making improvements as soon as possible.  While School Board members are excited about the new possibilities for Richmond public schools, some do not feel its smart to build new schools with many current schools in need of renovations. 

 

Its good to hear that there are some working plans and some hope for the schools of Richmond, but another step in improving the schools are having all elected officials on one accord.  It seems people are beating to their own drum and only have one thing in common. That one commonality is that all officials see a need for change and improvement in Richmond public schools, but have varying ways for achieving such change.  It is my hope that Richmond city officials will acquire a team spirit in improving Richmond’s schools for the sake of the children in Richmond and the future of the city.