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7 places where the art scene is flourishing in Richmond, Virginia

The Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries of Modern and Contemporary Art
Photo: Travis Fullerton  © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The life-size bronze statue of a man on horseback outside Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has the proud bearing of a classical warrior. But glance closer, and you’ll realize that his puffed-up chest and commanding gaze belongs to a contemporary-looking young Black man with dreadlocked hair and ripped jeans. However, the horse, foreleg raised and tail blowing in unseen wind, seems timeless.

Artist Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War was erected in 2019 on the grounds of the 85-year-old arts showplace. Best known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama, Wiley created the work as a response to the capital’s Monument Avenue, which until recently, held five statues of Confederate officers and figures. “The Wiley statue is an outward symbol of what’s happening at the VMFA and in Richmond,” says Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art.

Rumors of War is an example of how this small city is getting a rep for a big art scene. Here are seven places to see where and how art is flourishing in Richmond. 

1. Downtown murals

"African American Gothic" by artists Sone-Seeré and Andre Shank. | Photo by Gianna Grace Photography

"African American Gothic" by artists Sone-Seeré and Andre Shank. | Photo by Gianna Grace Photography

The most noticeable art in Richmond may be its dozens of public murals around downtown, Jackson Ward, and Cary Street. Splashed throughout close-in neighborhoods, the works range from whimsical figures of writer Edgar Allan Poe (who grew up in Richmond) on rowhouses in the Fan to outsized murals from the arts initiative Mending Walls, which pairs two artists from different cultures/backgrounds to create public art that speaks to social and racial justice. Mending Walls is inspired by a 1914 Robert Frost poem with a similar name, in which two men work to rebuild a stone wall.

The dramatic and moving results now dot downtown neighborhoods, and include African American Gothic, a wry portrait of a young Black couple, and muralist and project founder Hamilton Glass’ collaboration with friend Matt Lively. The pair filled a wall on Broad Street with memories of toys and TV shows from their childhoods. Glass painted scenes related to growing up Black in West Philadelphia (a fire hydrant, a toy revolver); Lively summoned up his white suburban Virginia upbringing with imagery from The Jetsons and a Big Wheel bike.

“It’s about having tough conversations and coming together through public art,” says Glass. “It’s something that Richmond is good at, work that means something and tells a story. We’re not just painting walls with robots because they look cool.”

2. Quirk Gallery

An artwork made with plastic coffee cup lids by artist Susie Ganch is displayed at the Quirk Hotel. | Photo by Kate Thompson

An artwork made with plastic coffee cup lids by artist Susie Ganch is displayed at the Quirk Hotel. | Photo by Kate Thompson

“The close association of Richmond and VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) has had a huge impact on the city’s art community and made it really diverse,” says Adam Dorland, the gallery director and curator at downtown’s Quirk Gallery, an edgy shop and display space connected to a boutique art hotel by the same name. “There are so many local artists who teach at or attended VCU, or who work out of studios in the area.”

Artist and VCU professor Susie Ganch creates jewelry and metalworks from a range of recycled materials. A massive piece of hers decorates a wall in the Quirk Hotel lobby. At first glance, it appears to be a mod white rug, but inch closer, and you’ll see the entire textile is formed from plastic coffee cup lids.

“That work is really good at tricking people into engaging with contemporary art,” says Dorland. “People look at it from a distance and think it’s feathers or something. They get giddy when they read the wall plaque and figure it out.”

3. ADA Gallery

Taylor A. White’s "American Cheese" at the ADA Gallery. | Photo Courtesy ADA Gallery

Taylor A. White’s "American Cheese" at the ADA Gallery. | Photo Courtesy ADA Gallery

At the contemporary fine art ADA Gallery, you’ll find pieces like local artist and VCU grad Nick Fagan’s quilted tapestries, patched together from movers’ blankets, and Taylor A. White’s American Cheese, a series of abstract mixed-media assemblages that evoke yellow cheese. “Considering the size of the city, I think Richmond’s art scene is fantastic,” says owner John Pollard. “There’s so much going on each month that it seems impossible to stay on top of.”

4. Uptown Gallery

Sally Kennedy's stained glass lamps are featured at the Uptown Gallery. | Photo by Stanley Watkins

Sally Kennedy's stained glass lamps are featured at the Uptown Gallery. | Photo by Stanley Watkins

Open since 1989, this co-op on the edge of the Fan neighborhood is owned and operated by about two dozen local artists. They fill a storefront with etched glass windows and soaring ceilings with sculptures, paintings, and drawings in styles from traditional and contemporary to impressionist. Don’t miss Kathleen Miller’s dreamy watercolors of French and Virginian landscapes or Sally Kennedy’s Tiffany-esque stained glass lamps.

5. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Artist Kehinde Wiley’s "Rumors of War" stands tall in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/David Stover

Artist Kehinde Wiley’s "Rumors of War" stands tall in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/David Stover

Opened in 1936, the VMFA is a joint effort between the state of Virginia and business leaders hoping to promote local, state, and international artists. Erected on land that was once part of a Civil War veterans’ home serving both Union and Confederate soldiers, the museum began as a single Georgian Revival–style building. Over the decades, the museum expanded five more times into a multi-winged, 650,000-square-foot venue with 13.7 acres of grounds.

The permanent collection includes British hunt-country paintings and sculptures (think hounds and horses), Fabergé eggs, one of the world’s largest museum collections of French art deco, and, these days, a new focus on acquiring African and African American art, as well as works by Asian, Islamic, Latinx, Native American, and women artists.

Recent additions include multiple Gee’s Bend quilts (Cubist-like textiles stitched by Black women in Alabama) and Jamaica-born, New York City–based Nari Ward’s Xquisite LiquorsouL, constructed from a found neon sign, artificial flowers, shoelaces, and wood.

6. 1708 Gallery

Founded in 1978, 1708 Gallery is one of the oldest artist-run galleries in the nation. | Photo Courtesy 1708 Gallery

Founded in 1978, 1708 Gallery is one of the oldest artist-run galleries in the nation. | Photo Courtesy 1708 Gallery

The longtime nonprofit 1708 Gallery showcases emerging and established artists both in its Broad Street digs and through public commissions around the city. With its high ceilings and exposed pipes, the space provides a loft-like setting for exhibits by local photographers, fiber artists, sculptors, and painters.

7. Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU

The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU is a non-collecting institution that showcases a rotation of exhibitions, performances, films, and special programs. | Photo Courtesy Institute for Contemporary Art

The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU is a non-collecting institution that showcases a rotation of exhibitions, performances, films, and special programs. | Photo Courtesy Institute for Contemporary Art

There’s a palpable sense of art being made right here, right now in the neighborhoods surrounding VMFA (the Fan and Richmond’s downtown core). You’ll spot outdoor murals on restaurants dotted among the Fan’s Victorian houses and, close to the main campus of VCU, students lugging portfolios or canvases to class.

With an arts program that consistently ranks among the top in the country, VCU stands as a funky state school amid more rarefied East Coast private institutions. Opened in 2018, the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU is an architecturally dazzling showplace for commissions by emerging local and international talents. In a curving, glowing three-level building with forked wings by Steven Holl Architects, guests find a frequently changing lineup of video installations, soundscapes, paintings, and sculptures, as well as performances, films, programs, site-specific commissions, and digital content. Its rotation of exhibitions has also included murals and an outdoor resiliency garden.

Nellie Mauer is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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