Rethinking Public Art | Arts and Culture | Style Weekly

The city of Richmond’s Public Art Commission (PAC) has committed over $600,000 to upcoming public art projects with another $300,000 to $350,000 it will be seeking to administer through June of next year.
It’s the largest budget and most projects the commission has had in process over its 30-plus-year history. “And all of these projects are going to be breaking in the next year,” says Susan Glasser, secretary of the PAC. “I think they’re really going to push the envelope of what public art can be and how people can think about it.”

Among the committed projects: A Southside community center skate park with interactive art from artist Alexis Sablone; a Hillside Court playground with a three-part sculpture by artist Nastassja Swift commemorating Sharmar Hill Jr., a 3-year-old victim of gun violence; and a project integrating art into Richmond’s oldest fire station, #12 at 2223 W. Cary St., featuring the work of several artists. In total, 10 artists were awarded commissions; four are artists of color and five are from the Richmond region.

The public art master plan was approved in fall of 2018, and one of its main goals was to expand the concept and acknowledgment of the different forms that public art can take, which PAC members have taken to heart. In early August, we spoke with Glasser as well as Ashley Kistler, chair of the PAC, to learn more about what the commission has been up to in recent years, how public art fits into the city’s master plan vision, and what the PAC is doing to address public misapprehensions about how it functions.

Style Weekly: So for anyone who might not know, explain what the Public Art Commission (PAC) is and how it is supported?

Susan Glasser: So the Public Art Commission is a part of City Hall and it exists because of a “percent for the arts” ordinance written back in 1997 that allocates 1% of any qualifying capital improvement project (that meets a certain requirement) has to go to installing public art. It’s morphed a little from that, but that’s the crux. We only deal with putting public art on city-owned, public property.

I think we’re getting very good support from City Hall, probably more so than ever. There are people in the leadership who recognize the contributions that public art can make to furthering the mission of the city meeting the Richmond 300 master plan goals. The city recognizes that art is a vehicle to bring creatives in to help advance the city’s mission and long-range goals. From Kevin Vonck, the new director of Planning and Development Review, to [Chief Administrative Officer] Lincoln Saunders, to the mayor, we’re getting really good support from the leadership.

We’ve got a number of irons in the fire in terms of trying to expand the role and capacity of the PAC. We’re doing a lot of behind-the-scenes things, new ordinances, other funding sources, etc., but we’re not quite there yet.

Ashley Kistler: I have to credit Susan with a lot of that. She’s been so successful the last four years at raising the visibility of PAC and garnering the highest level of city support yet. That’s been huge. As a result, we felt this was an opportune time to inform the public of what we’ve been up to. Many of these commissions are now coming to fruition. We also want to dispel some misapprehensions from the public about how we operate.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • Public Art Commission Secretary Susan Glasser, artist Sylvio Lynch, and PAC chair Ashley Kistler stand in front of theconstruction for Fire Station #12. Lynch, the only Richmond artist on the four-artist team for that installation, will be making a presentation about the work on Sept. 21 (6 p.m.) during a district meeting at Byrd Park Round House hosted by Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.

What are the goals that you are focused on, and what public misapprehensions do you want to correct?

Glasser: The public art master plan has been adopted and incorporated into Richmond 300, so we’ve got City Council buy-in; it’s not just a stand-alone public art master plan, ours is now part of the city’s. There are basically two priorities, as public arts commissioners, that we’ve been focused on: We’re trying to expand the possibilities and get art more broadly around the city, expanding into temporary art installations, which we have not historically been able to do because our funding doesn’t allow it. Also, just growing beyond the percent for art parameters that had been set around the program.
I would say part of the misperception that we want to dispel is that it’s not a diverse group of people who sit on the commission and who participate in the artist selection process. Ashley has really prioritized that, to the point where PAC is the most diverse commission in Planning and Development Review (PDR). And I think that’s to the benefit of the commission, it connects us into parts of the community we have not traditionally been connected to and brings projects in front of us that we would not have considered at some other time. It’s starting to reflect the richness of Richmond in a way that it hasn’t in the past.

Kistler: Also, just to remind your readers, the long-range public art master plan is on the PAC’s website. The whole document is there if anyone cares to read through it … I would also refer readers to our equity statement, which is now three-and-a-half-years-old and is also available on the website. It’s an important document that guides what we do.

I think that one of our big priorities has been to create more opportunities for local artists, and I think we’ve been successful these last few years. But also I think it’s advantageous and illuminating for all of us to enlist creative perspectives from outside our regional communities. And we’re really trying to balance that range of artists that we serve.

One of the main audience responses we received [as to what was needed] is more temporary art. And we have drafted a proposal and received some city funding to devote to temporary art. It’s a new funding stream and a great start … but we’re also applying for grants and focusing with our partners on what we can do reenergize Broad Street.

Does the PAC have any role to play regarding what will happen with the former monuments and those public spaces?

Glasser: There have been conversations within City Hall, and the general take has been to let the community take some time to cogitate on what they would like to see happen, and how the city might progress with that. In the meantime, the city is really shifting its focus, inspired by conversations that were happening in 2020, to look at what is a responsible way for the city of Richmond to respond to all of the significant and important questions that were raised in the summer of 2020. And the city, with the guidance of the mayor, has really shifted focus down to Shockoe Bottom and is not ready to come out with concrete plans yet. But there is a lot of conversation behind the scenes happening that I think the city will be very excited about.

Kistler: [In 2020] we were sort of in conversation with the mayor’s office about whether PAC could lead a charge as to what happens on Monument Avenue. The mayor, rightly so, said they were shifting their attention to Shockoe Bottom. I agree that is the most important historic site in the city of Richmond and it deserves all the attention we can give it. The PAC is involved in those discussions and we have a forthcoming RFQ [request for quote] that should be posted soon. We are working with Burt Pinnock [architect with Baskervill] on the Slave Trail, he’s designed a new entrance … He’s sort of the architect in charge with creating a holistic approach to that entire area of downtown Richmond.

Glasser: I need to step in here … the plans are in the process with the city, and it’s their responsibility to announce those plans, not the PAC, because they’re much more encompassing than just public art. It’s a much more comprehensive approach.

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A rendering of Fire Station#12 in District 5, where the “iconic form of a fire ladder inspired two large sculptures - suspended in the openings of the 2-story atrium. Historically resonant and - community-inspired images will be digitally printed into glass at the entrance and on the second story windows.” Expected completion date: Summer 2024. Budget: $150,000. - COURTESY OF RICHMOND PAC

  • Courtesy of Richmond PAC
  • A rendering of Fire Station#12 in District 5, where the “iconic form of a fire ladder inspired two large sculpturessuspended in the openings of the 2-story atrium. Historically resonant andcommunity-inspired images will be digitally printed into glass at the entrance and on the second story windows.” Expected completion date: Summer 2024. Budget: $150,000.

Do you get a sense of where the grassroots energy is in terms of what kind of public art young artists want to create around Richmond? For a while, it was murals everywhere, but that seems to have died down some.

Glasser: Well, and that brings up another misconception [about PAC] is the murals. There are so many around Richmond and they’ve garnered so much attention and love from the public. But PAC had nothing to do with those, because 99% of them are on private property — and PAC can’t be involved with private property projects. We can’t tell someone what to paint on their own property.

We have been approached by very thoughtful, up-and-coming leaders in the arts community, and the word you’re using is the right one, grassroots — they are much more organic and the PAC is in conversation about that. I’m not sure what the right word is, “managed graffiti” opportunities? Expanding the opportunities of graffiti beyond vandalism that the city can invite and encourage that aesthetic in constructive ways. We’re at the very beginning stages of that, but PAC is reaching into that community to start thinking about other ways to be involved beyond big, $200,000 projects that are architecturally significant.

Kistler: Coming back to temporary art programs, that will also give us a vehicle to engage more local artists, giving further exposure to the mural and graffiti aesthetic that is so prevalent among younger artists here … [For example] Hamilton Glass has had such a great impact on the city with his Mending Walls project.

What are the main ways you are working to raise the PAC’s visibility?

Glasser: We’re actually planning — and Ashley gets the credit for this — a community dialogue this fall.

Kistler: It’s been percolating for some time now, in large measure due to letting the public know how we operate, or what we can and can’t do. This would be a community forum on public art. We’ve got a venue in mind that I think will come through this fall, and it will be an important opportunity. There will be panelists from several different persuasions and backgrounds, a great Q&A session. It would be a two-part initiative. Hopefully, we would like to do a workshop in concert with 1708 Gallery that would provide information for up-and-coming artists who have never done a public art project but would like to apply and do one [there is no date yet, but they would like to do it before Thanksgiving, check the website for more info].

Glasser: If people reading this want to receive more information, they can also feel free to email me, one on one, as the plans develop [her email is]

Community engagement seems to have been a key component moving forward, can you talk about some ways you’re pursuing that?

Glasser: The artist selection panel is a community-based panel. So it’s not the PAC making unilateral decisions, it’s the community making decisions, reviewing applications and proposals. We’re also asking artists as a part of their proposal to include in the proposal itself: How are you going to engage the public as part of your creative process? And we give them the opportunity to do that, whether in the planning stage, planning design stage or in the installation stage. We’re leaving it up to the artists, but they have to have a community engagement component in their proposal because its public art and the public has to be involved.

The city has things it wants to accomplish, and we also partner with other agencies in the city [on] all the capital improvement projects that the city is prioritizing, that we’re getting our funding from. One of the things we’re doing is that we’re talking to these other agencies and we’re saying: “Here’s a project, here’s your goal, here’s what we can do to help you meet your goals.” Often times we’re finding that is letting these agencies know that we feel strongly about functional art. If they need a shade structure, or seating, or playground equipment, an educational component about storm water management, we can engage an artist to help achieve that. Bring in an artist to let them contribute functional, purposeful art — I think that’s one of the ways we’re convincing City Hall that public art has a role to play in furthering the master plan.

Kistler: We’ve also been brainstorming for a cultural hub and community meeting space on Broad Street in the Arts District. We’ve been discussing it with Venture Richmond, 1708 Gallery, Historic Jackson Ward Foundation and others about helping to establish an identity for the Arts District. That would be a conference space, hopefully with a green area, which in part would be an information clearinghouse about what’s going on with the arts and culture entities along Broad Street, encouraging pedestrian traffic and highlighting businesses in the area. Providing a place where the community could gather.

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