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Making Art Public in Richmond

(Image credit: Dave Parrish/1708 Gallery)

Richmond has grand plans for building up more public art in the city. Just this past weekend a two-day free art exhibit outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts drew more than 20,000 visitors.

Even though it was dark and cold outside Friday night, the entire back lawn of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was filled with people, wandering among large-scale, light-inspired sculptures, projections and performances. The event, called InLight, is put on by 1708 Gallery.

"I live like three or four blocks from here. I knew this was going on," says Mark Wood, a visitor to the exhibit. "I just wanted to come and check it out -- just all the lights and everything.”

Wood started by going through the Confederate Chapel. Floodlights poured into the chapel from outside -- illuminating the stained glass in a way rarely seen. Even though he lives nearby, Wood says he’s never been inside the chapel before.

“I guess it’s like a lot of things, things like in your own neighborhood. You see but you don’t take the time to actually check out,” says Wood.

It’s made Wood think that, perhaps, that’s the real beauty of an event like this one.

“We go to work, we come home, we go immediately into our own house and do whatever, and don’t get to know what’s right around us,” says Wood.

That’s exactly what Ellyn Parker, Richmond’s public arts coordinator, is hoping can happen more often in the city.

“I think it just shows that Richmond is really hungry for big large scale pieces of art and that they’re really open to expanding beyond what has been here now,” says Parker.

Richmond has the money to support it. Each time the city spends more than $250,000 on a capitol project, it sets aside 1-percent of that budget for public art. Over the years that money has grown, to become just about $3 million. Now, Parker is guiding the public arts commission in deciding how to spend it. Her starting point? Ask the people.

“It’s public art, it should be driven by the public," Parker says. "I think that the community really needs to voice their opinion on what kind of pieces of art should be meaningful for their neighborhood and also how they’re able to give input.”

The process of creating Richmond’s master plan will be kicked off this week in a community meeting. There’s also an online survey for those with an opinion.

The first community meeting for the Public Art Master Plan will be held at the Science Museum of Virginia, November 17 at 5:30.

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