Plunky's Involvement with RVA Public Arts

RVA Downtown Arts District History 

Downtown Richmond is developing an arts district along several blocks of Broad Street, the city’s major commercial thoroughfare.   In addition to art galleries, shops, restaurants and other businesses the area is alive with murals, beautification projects, monthly mini-festivals, and other related activities.  This is a kinetic renewal project that will hopefully lead to even more capital improvements, private investments, new residents and visitors to continue to revitalize the city’s commercial core.  Many artists, audiences and other participants may be unaware that this level of activity did not occur spontaneously, without foresight and planning. 

Back in 1980 the City of Richmond (RVA) working with the Federated Arts Council (FAC) undertook a feasibility study for the development of an arts center in downtown.  After a comprehensive survey identifying 30 buildings and properties which could be developed into an arts center, the city and a 48-member cultural facility planning committee eventually decided on the concept of an arts district in downtown.  The proposed district was to be centered on the Masonic Temple building on the corner of Broad and Adams Streets and incorporate the rest of the properties on that block including the two theaters plus small scale buildings in that immediate vicinity.   That area was seen to have an ideal collection of properties for the development of a district for the arts which would include: galleries, artist studios, related commercial enterprises and living spaces. 

During the six months when this feasibility study was undertaken, I served as program director for the Federated Arts Council.  It was that organization, working with a group called Partners for Livable Cities that developed the idea for the study.  A $30,000 grant from a public-private partnership allowed us to conduct a national search and select a team of architects and arts and economic consultants to survey suitable buildings, interview a wide range of artists and arts organizations; and solicit support for the concept from the corporate community and citizens of Richmond. 

After the Greater Richmond District for the Arts – plan for action was completed and accepted by the city’s planning Department, city council and the Mayor, Henry L. Marsh, the Richmond Foundation for the Arts, Inc. was established to bring the arts district plan to fruition.  I was named executive director of that foundation by the board of directors and we raised $100,000 which was used operate the organization; to option the essential properties in the area; and to begin further fundraising to fully implement the plan. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to establishment of the arts district - politics reared its head.  In 1982 a new mayor was elected and because the arts district project was so closely associated with the previous administration, the new mayor would not support the project.  Without the support of the city administration, the Richmond Arts District Foundation found it difficult to continue with the project and eventually the organization folded.  And I left the world of arts administration, and went back to being a fulltime musician and an artist committed to making a difference in the community in a different way. 

Fast forward, now 33 years later, the arts are still alive in downtown RVA: mural projects, art galleries, festivals, and residencies abound.  The current mayor, Dwight Jones, has designated an arts district in the area which includes the district we planned all those years ago.  This means our earlier efforts were not in vain.  Our plans were on point.  And that 30 year-old vision is being realized. 

I am proud to be a functioning member of the creative community, promoting the arts, my own music and the visions of our thought leaders.  Because I know history, I know that we have to continue to be about the future… 

My Own Arts Administration History: 

30 years ago I was the executive director of the Richmond Foundation for the Arts, an organization with options on a 65,000 square foot, five story building, two theaters and a few small shops.   Charged with establishing an arts district along Broad Street, I and my staff operated the real estate and conducted fundraising campaigns.  This arts administration gig was my day job while I continued to perform as a professional musician. 

My arts administrating began 14 years earlier while I was at Columbia University and formed the 14 member soul band called the Soul Syndicate.  I was the leader of the band which meant I booked the gigs, managed the money, scheduled and directed the rehearsals and arranged the logistics.  Wearing these multiple hats prepared me to be a manager/administrator.   

From 1968 to 1973 I lived in San Francisco where I formed, Juju, a six-piece African jazz group that performed around the region.  In 1973 Juju recorded a critically acclaimed avant garde new music album that was that would eventually take us to New York.  As the leader of the group, I produced the recording and mixing sessions and worked with Strata-East Records to release and promote the album, and administered the copyrights and publishing of the music.  Those skills and experiences would serve me for the rest of my career as an artist.  While in San Francisco I was also a member of a multicultural group of writers and artists called Third World Communication, which included Chicano, Japanese, Black, Filipino, Chinese and African creative people.  Working with such a diverse group and their publications was challenging and enlightening.


When our group Juju moved to New York in 1973 to perform in festivals, clubs and lofts, famed saxophonist Ornette Coleman engaged me to run his art gallery and performance space in the fashionable SOHO area of Greenwich Village.  When I moved back to Richmond in 1974, I continued to record and perform with my band, but I also worked with my oldest friend, Lew Harrison to establish Kahero Gallery, the first Black arts gallery in the state of Virginia.  Although it was located on the first floor of our residence, Kahero Gallery functioned as a small community arts center with exhibits, jazz and poetry performances, discussions and a photography studio and darkroom. 

When we applied for grant funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts for our gallery and for performances we were turned down.  When we discovered that no Black arts organizations had ever received funding from the agency, we threatened to sue the state.  Established organizations like the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Ballet, the museums and theater groups all received state, local and even some federal funding in addition to substantial corporate support.  The local arts umbrella group, the Federated Arts Council of Richmond (FAC), also received funding, but that organization had no Black member groups. 


During that time we participated in debates over issues such as: the definition of art, cultural aesthetics, multiculturalism, the role of art in society, public and private funding for the arts and the politics of the arts.  My own view was that the aesthetics of Black art were based on cultural identity, functionality, community support, in addition to energy, rhythm, improvisation and history.  I argued that these aesthetic criteria were just as valid as those ascribed to European art forms, and that tax funds used to support the arts should be more equitably distributed among the groups who pay into the tax coffers. 

These debates did not take place in a local vacuum.  During this period the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), regional arts agencies, foundations and universities delved into discussions about ethnic art, folk art, neighborhood art, fine art, classical art, public arts and multi-disciplinary arts and how these different genres should be classified and funded.  There are always the ongoing debates about whether there should be government funding for the arts at all; and if it is to be, who should decide who and what gets funded.  Corporate and private patronage of the arts is scrutinized based on public relations, advertising, and to whom the funding goes and what audiences appreciate what is created. 

My view was Black art as a nationalistic or popular or edification enterprise was important culturally and economically; and if public and private funding for the arts was being made available, then Black art should get its share.  Even if race or ethnicity was not the deciding factor, neighborhood art, local artists public art projects should be considered for financial support.  Time worn ideas about fine art, museums, classical music and theater were challenged in these discourses.  

The threats of legal challenges to governmental funding mechanisms for the arts and culture were explored.  These challenges led to changes at the state and local levels.


In 1978 I formed Branches of the Arts, Inc., (BOTA) a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation dedicated to the development of Black art as a cultural, educational and business resource for the community.  One of the biggest impediments to Black arts organizations receiving funding was the fact that most of the groups were not tax-exempt corporations.   BOTA functioned as a Black arts council, an umbrella group comprised of Black music, theater, dance groups, choirs and exhibitors.  BOTA offered financial administration services, organizing support and technical assistance to fledgling Black arts groups.  One of our greatest successes was the creation of the Richmond Jazz Society (which was formed in my dining room).  That treasured jazz presenting and education organization is now 30 years old and still going strong.  

BOTA would eventually establish an arts center in a building that formerly housed a Black business school in downtown’s Jackson Ward neighborhood.  The organization also established the annual BOTA Black Arts Awards Program, a black-tie affair honoring outstanding artistic achievements in the community, in addition to other programs.  BOTA programs included an annual Kwanza festival; classes and workshops; in addition to regular music, dance and theater performances by member groups and presentations of touring artists.  BOTA worked with Soweto Stage Company, Ezibu African Dance, Richmond Public Schools, area colleges and universities and individual artists.  BOTA presented Samm-Art Williams’ play, Home, starring Samuel L. Jackson at the Empire Theater and it was hugely successful. 

During that time, our efforts garnered the support of the community, other Black organizations and of the city council, led by Mayor Henry L. Marsh.   BOTA’s successes led to discussions with Kathy Dwyer, Executive Director of the Federated Arts Council, about the political advantages of both organizations working together to do big things in the city.  We decided on an alliance that would have BOTA join the arts council as a member organization and with me taking on the role as FAC program director.  This arrangement would give BOTA some standing and recognition in the established arts community and access to funding networks.  It would give FAC a more favorable standing with the Black community and with city council and the mayor. 

The new, more powerful FAC whose member groups included almost all of the arts organizations, large and small, Black and white, public and private would, for the most part, provide services as opposed to creating programming and presentations that would compete with its own members.   FAC did create a major arts festival called June Jubilee, which used the member groups as well as national acts to draw tens of thousands of people into the downtown.  June Jubilee, the first of many RVA festivals, demonstrated that the arts could be used to bring the community together and that downtown Richmond could be a place of revitalization. 

The FAC board of directors was a veritable who’s who of the city’s corporate community, educators, and directors.  Kathy Dwyer, its executive director was an outstanding administrator, tactician and visionary leader.  She saw the tremendous potential of the arts council to bring together the business community and the political leaders to make Richmond a more livable place and maybe even a city of national prominence. 

After getting Richmond named as one of the country’s most livable cities, and following through with the development of the plan for an arts district, in 1981 Kathy Dwyer worked with the mayor to set up Richmond Renaissance, a 50-plus member super group consisting of some of the city’s most elite public and private power brokers.  Richmond Renaissance was charged with creating innovative, large-scale economic development and cultural projects to move the city forward.  

The group’s first major undertaking was Project One, the development of the 6th Street Marketplace, an urban mall that linked downtown’s two major department stores with the Richmond Coliseum, the Richmond Marriott Hotel and small scale shops and a food court.  The most prominent feature of the 6th Street Marketplace was an architectural bridge across Broad Street, symbolically linking vital segments of the community. 

Richmond Renaissance played an active role in several other major initiatives, including revitalization of Richmond's historic Jackson Ward neighborhood and improvements to the city's downtown riverfront property.  The establishment of the Richmond Foundation for the Arts to initiate the downtown arts district project was also supported by Richmond Renaissance.   

Richmond Renaissance would later merge with the Central Richmond Association and Downtown Richmond, Inc., two other organizations promoting economic development in Richmond.  In its most recent incarnation, Venture Richmond, the organization operates The Brown’s Island festival site, the River Walk development, the International Folk Festival, the 2nd Street Festival, the Easter Parade on Monument Avenue and the Friday Cheers concert series. 

The successes of all these organizations and projects demonstrate how effective the arts can be at bringing people and resources to together and bridging cultural and social divides.  Way back when segregation was mandated by law, some of the first examples of de facto integration were when Black and whites would be brought into the same rooms, barns and arenas to hear blues, jazz or rock and roll music; thereby demonstrating that people could get along and proving that no matter how diverse their cultural, historical, political or social backgrounds, people can share common interests, aspirations and enjoyments.  

Our downtown arts district has tremendous potential.  Having the proposed VCU Institute for Contemporary Art as an anchor, the public murals, the new influx of residents, First Fridays mini-festivals, the botanical beautification, and the ongoing real estate development are all indicative of a bright future for our downtown and the enhancement of the city’s significance as an urban destination.  

This future potential is based on a history of planning and development.  History teaches us that big things take planning, politics, perseverance and being about the future… 

The lesson is that when political, business, artistic interests find common ground, getting big things done becomes more feasible.  The arts can bring people together.  In some instances the arts can bridge seemingly insurmountable cultural and political divides.  Public art is often controversial but it also can become a source of community pride and an enhancement to its livability and attractiveness…