Community-minded gallery turns challenges into opportunities
Set within the colorful exuberance of the Arts and Culture District in Richmond, Virginia, 1708 Gallery sits in between busy restaurants, hotels, and museums. While the sounds of the newest exhibit resonate throughout the long and lofty space, plans within the office are unfolding for a bold new project.
The idea of a live-in artist residency program has long captured the imaginations of the 44-year-old nonprofit’s leaders and community. The organization’s mission is to create opportunities for artistic innovation and community dialogue. And there happen to be three large and light-filled lofts above the gallery, all with towering north and south-facing windows.
The gallery is well-placed within a close-knit and collaborative community that includes the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and non-profit organizations like Studio Two Three, the Afrikana Film Festival, and the Visual Arts Center.
The impact of the program could be significant. Particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic and the ongoing racial justice movement, art and artists in Richmond continue to provoke all sorts of important conversations and expression. Most recently, the artist Sandy Williams examined reparations and how the destruction of Freedmen communities has affected the area since the Civil War. In another collaboration, the artist Alan Ruiz focused on the complexity and history of Richmond’s urban development. During his time with the gallery, he led the nonprofit to examine its own role in gentrification and wage equity for artists.
Research on proximity to arts and culture overwhelmingly indicates positive effects on the community, including, “Increased neighborhood livability, community identity, and social wellbeing.” According to a recent social impact study from the Arts Fund,
“While many aspects of wellbeing are linked closest to economic status and ethnicity… engagement with arts and culture can create social capital that exerts a strong, positive effect on wellbeing. This evidence suggests arts assets can play an important role in equitable outcomes.”
In its current location since 2001, the gallery came before the area was designated an Arts and Culture District. Since then, the organization has established itself as a leader and convener within the community whose role is now focused on increased diversity, equity, and inclusion across the neighborhood.
With all of these factors at work, numerous challenges emerged while designing the residency program. Fully funded opportunities to create art are hard to come by. There is a small but prestigious group of institutions across the country that provide space for such an offering, many of which charge tuition and fees for artists to participate. To do this in the most equitable and accessible ways possible, 1708 Gallery identified the goal for all expenses to be paid, including living wages and art materials.
To satisfy that need, the challenges of time and capacity came into play. Rising rents along the Broad Street corridor became concerning. With a small staff and dedicated board, extra time would need to be spent designing the program and raising funds to support it. Infrastructure costs would need to remain steady to grow the organization. All at once, creativity became a necessity, and a decision became clear.
With funding from Virginia Community Capital (VCC), generous donors, and other partners, 1708 Gallery decided to purchase the building. Executive Director Emily Smith counts the decision as the proudest moment of her 12-year tenure with the organization. She said, “Buying the building and investing in infrastructure means that we have the capacity to focus all of our attention on the art, the residency program, and the community.”
With the community’s needs in mind, VCC Loan Officer Cindy Snider welcomed the collaboration. She said, “It’s a high impact opportunity. It’s also easy for our organization to understand the funding timing and operations of non-profits. We appreciate their challenges, goals, and values.”
With the shared goals of thriving communities and more equitable opportunities, the next stage of planning is underway. Artists-in-residence will likely be hosted around the academic year, with a shorter summer term option. Once launched, the application process will be open nationally to artists interested in creating new and contemporary work. 1708 Gallery will continue to support artists from across a variety of disciplines and interests, while centering the needs of the artists themselves at the heart of their work.