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In which we explore the great city of Richmond, Virginia, and think about its history as well as its present.

Featuring:
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Quirk Hotel
Rappahannock Restaurant
Lamplighter Roasting Company
Early Bird Biscuit Co.
Reynolds Gallery
1708 Gallery
VCU’s Undergraduate Juried Fine Arts Exhibition
The future site of The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU
Sub Rosa Bakery
Libby Hill Park

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[PBS Digital Studios theme]

I knew two things about Richmond, Virginia when I arrived: One, it was the capitol of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and two, it has a really great art school within Virginia Commonwealth University, with lots of good faculty, which was the reason I was there.

The collision of past and present encapsulated in those two bits of knowledge were immediately present as we drove through the city. How does a city like Richmond become a center for art and culture, and why? This is what we wanted to know.

Speaking of the capitol of the Confederacy, our first stop was the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which is on the grounds of the former Robert E. Lee Camp #1: A home for poor and infirm Confederate vets. And you pass the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on your way in.

History is alive and unignorable in this spot, and I was prepared to be creeped out by this, but instead I was impressed at every turn by the museum's acknowledgment and transparency about it. They traced their history from the Algonquian Indian tribes that settled here before the English arrived in the seventeenth century and onto the land as a privately owned estate "cultivated and improved–no doubt through the labor of the enslaved African Americans."

Within the museum, you are encouraged to confront the complexity of Richmond's history, and what their extensive collection does and does not contain. In this gallery, a wall text explains the embrace of neoclassical themes following America's War of Independence, reflecting the founding principles of freedom and equality. But they made sure to add "despite the fact that they were not extended to the entire population–particularly Native Americans, African Americans, and women."

Like most museums, the VMFA's collection has been formed and shaped by the collectors who have donated their art and objects to it. It's easy to forget that. The collections don't simply spring forth based on the recommendations of experts, but instead develop slowly in fits and spurts, determined by what they can convince rich people in the area to give them, and through concerted efforts to raise funds and acquire things to fill in the gaps.

You have Leslie Garland Bolling's 1935 sculpture "Cousin-on-Friday," which was the first work the museum acquired by an African American artist in 1944, and then you've got paintings like this one of Alexander Spotswood Payne and his brother and their nurse, given to the museum in the 1950's by a descendant of Payne's, and then you have this magnificent portrait of Marian Anderson by Beauford Delaney, collected in 2012 through targeted acquisition funds, all on display in the American galleries, these works demonstrate the clear efforts the museum has made to tell a broader story of art.

They also have a superb collection of 21st century art that tells a wider and more international story of art production, by works by Julie Mehretu, Mickalene Thomas, Angel Otero, Henrique Oliveira, Hank Willis Thomas, and Sonya Clark. I appreciated the art, but mostly appreciated the evolution of this collection, how it reflects the history of this place, and the voices it includes and excludes, as well as its aspirations for the future. Oh, and they have free admission and are open 365 days a year.

And because nothing in this city is seven or eight minutes away, we turned around and found ourselves at the studio of Sonya Clark to film an assignment. Sonya is the chair of the Craft and Material Studies department at VCU, and she's an incredible artist in person. We had just seen her work at the VMFA, and here she was, talking about her own history, Richmond's histories, world histories, and how we attempt to conceive of and process narratives and numbers of the past and present.

We then dropped off our bags at the delightful Quirk Hotel–a boutique hotel housed in a renovated 1916 department store. There's a magnificent installation in its lobby by Susie Ganch, who also teaches at VCU, composed of repurposed plastic coffee lids in an arrangement mimicking Atlantac trade routes. There's a great bar and restaurant, a shop, and Quirk Gallery next door.

A short walk took us to Rappahannock restaurant, where we had a delicious meal featuring oysters they cultivate themselves in the Chesapeake Bay and of course, in the Rappahannock River. Along with oyster, we also had other excellent seafood dishes like wood grilled octopus and expertly prepared fish courses.

Day Two began the way most days should, with excellent coffee, which we picked up from Lamplighter Roasting Company, and then we ate what you want to eat every morning, but you really shouldn't–and that's biscuits. Early Bird Biscuit Company had just opened location, and oh my God they have amazing biscuits! Their regular biscuit is amazing, and then their unique biscuit of the day–sweet tea and lemon–was also amazing. We got two more to go.

And okay, so many of the city's galleries were in between shows, but not all, so we made a quick stop into the nearby Reynolds Gallery, which exhibitions of work by Paul Ryan and Jill Moser. Ryan uses magazines and commercial packaging as stencils to create the compositional structure of his paintings, whose industrial forms are interspersed with more organic ones. Ryan is an alum of VCU's MFA program, and now teaches at Mary Baldwin College.

And although Jill Moser is based in New York, she also has ties to VCU, where she's been a visiting artist to adjunct professor. Moser's gestural works provided a counterpoint to Ryan's more hard-edge paintings, showing us two contrasting, but nevertheless absorbing approaches to abstraction

1708 Gallery had up an exhibition of video works by Adam Shecter, featuring a large scale panoramic animation titled "New Year," that served as the title for the show. It was remarkable for a couple reasons. One, because the work is a mesmerising mix of narratives and textures, and two, because the New York-based artist seems to have no direct connection to VCU.

The pull of VCU was still strong, so we scooted over to its campus to film an assignment with the delightful Hope Ginsberg, who teaches there and who has maintained the Sponge HQ within one of the VCU School of the Arts buildings. It's an interdisciplinary workshop, lab, classroom, and project space which is served dutifully as her base of activities since 2010. She's plotting a studio shift which she's folding into an upcoming assignment for all of us, and she spoke about why, where, and how we work matters and informs what we make and the kinds of artists we want to be. I loved that the school has made room for this kind of a space, that fosters both students and faculty.

And just a few stories down in the same building, we got to see VCU's undergraduate juried Fine Arts exhibition. I'll probably offend some of you by saying this, but I'm gonna: I am rarely impressed by undergraduate exhibitions. Individual works in those shows, sure, but this exhibition contained a variety of works that drew me in and blew me away on a number of levels. Conceptual rigor was there, thoughtfulness, but also a mastery of materials, skillful techniques joined with good ideas. I could immediately see why VCU has been named the #1 public art school in the country, and why it has become a forceful creative engine in the city.

We then took a look at the site of VCU's future Institute for Contemporary Art, now a construction site, but soon to be a 40,000 square foot museum designed by Steven Holl architects. It will be an non-collecting institution showing a changing slate of exhibitions and programming, an "incubator for interdisciplinary experimentation." With a museum like the VMFA not far away, the ICA is poised to be an important counterpart to the city's cultural landscape. Freed from the constraints of collection development, a nimble, variable resource for students and residents. Its staff is preparing for its 2017 opening in this temporary unmissable space, and I'm excited to see what comes of it.

On our way to the airport, we made two final stops, one to Subversive Bakery, where we picked up more buttery baked goods, and also stopped at Libby Hill Park overlooking the city and James River. The Confederate soldier and sailors monument anchors the park, but nobody really seems to pay that much attention to it, because the main attraction is the view. It's called "the view that named Richmond" because William Byrd II, the guy that used to live on the land where the VMFA is, looked out from this spot in the 1700's and thought it looked like the view from Richmond upon Thames in England.

So I only got a brief glimpse of this city, and with a pretty narrow focus on art, but I think that can be a revealing way to see a city. Through that lens, you get to think about how a place's residents conceived of themselves in the past, what visions they saw for their futures, what they decided to collect, monumentalize, or keep hidden. Through that lens, you also get to see how a city conceives of itself in the present, the variety of views it presents, the histories it decides to confront and reconsider, and the way it wants to conceive of its future. Richmond is a historic city for sure, but it's a study in contrasts of new and old, and a fitting place it turns out, for thinking about what American art is, was, and should be.

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