Being a public art advocate

Now with commission seat opening!

Update #1 — February 18, 2016; 2:21 PM

If you’re fascinated with the article below and you’d like to be a part of helping public art in Richmond blossom like a beautiful flower, you’d better check out the new Commission appointment description!

The Public Art Commission has a vacancy for one of the Visual Arts seats on this advisory commission to the Planning Commission. The Public Art Commission meets the second Tuesday of the month at 9:15 am. The appointment is a 3 year term and regular attendance and participation in other selection teams is necessary.

Please contact the Secretary to the Commission with any questions.

That Secretary is Ellyn Parker! Contact her at

View the actual application (PDF).

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Original — February 10, 2016

Richmond’s Public Art Commission has been around since many of you were wee babes–and since the rest of us were at least significantly younger. Originally appointed in 1991, the commission has some money saved (thanks to the Percent-for-the-Arts program, in which 1% of the budget of new or renovation construction projects turns into art funding) and is ready to get rolling.

Ellyn Parker was hired last summer as the city’s first Public Art Coordinator, and it’s her job to manage all this stuff. She also serves as the point person for the consultants currently drafting the Public Art Master Plan, which will define what we want our public arts scene to be, how and when we’ll do it, and how we’ll fund it.

Tonight (details at the end of this post) is your final chance to hang out with said consultants, share your ideas, ask how many trees will be displaced by public art projects, and react accordingly. After this public meeting they’ll finalize their recommendations and the Master Plan will be born.

Why public art is even a thing we should be publicly caring about

Richmond is a city with major issues on its docket: education, housing, transportation, crime, criminal justice…should statues and murals be on our radar?

Let me ask you this, if you had one day in Chicago, would you try to work in a visit to the Bean? While you’re there, would you take a picture of it? Would you post it to Instagram?

“Art does more than just make things pretty,” says Parker, who spent several years working in a similar position for San Francisco’s Mayor’s office. “Art was the common denominator in a lot of the tough things I was working on back there–in homelessness, safety, mental illness. You can get people to have a positive conversation about it, even people in crime-ridden neighborhoods or neighborhoods with a lot of drama between neighbors. It has a softer touch, you don’t have to check off the boxes for job creation and that kind of thing that you have to worry about for other types of civic projects.”

She’s originally from Virginia, a Lynchburg native who tried her hand at art school at VCU before moving to San Francisco, painting murals, owning a gallery, and slowly becoming more and more interested in civic issues. A neighbor saw a job opening at the Mayor’s office that she thought Parker would be perfect for, and the City agreed. “It just ballooned from there,” she remembers cheerfully. “Anytime everything was art-related, they were like ‘You’re into art! Here you go!'”

Parker has a lot of energy and a lot of passion for what art can do. She also has an advantage of having grown up within Virginia then getting experience elsewhere and bringing it back. People’s issues and prejudices and politics are different here (although she’s quick to insist that San Francisco has plenty of all of the above, they’re just targeted at different things), and if she hadn’t spent so many years here, she might not have been able to calibrate her brain so easily.

But art really does have the power to transform neighborhoods, she says, citing Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, ” That was an area with a lot of crime, and no businesses wanted to come in,” she explains. The City ended up lighting up a lot of the historical buildings on the street, which literally spotlit the overlooked beauty of the area. Coffee shops came in, retail came in, and then families followed. “It can change a whole neighborhood in a good way. Getting the businesses in is so important. No one wants to go to an H&R block for fun, they want to go to galleries or theaters.”

We’re sitting at Lift on Broad Street and she’s continually gesturing outside to the relatively newly founded Arts District as a great example of how a neglected area can be brought back with the help of art.

The City had gone as far as it could go with just its volunteer commission, and Parker says she’s spent a lot of the first six months of her job “cleaning the dishes of Thanksgiving dinner before I can move on to Christmas.” Policies had to be updated–particularly the pre-internet ones that required all sorts of hard copies of things.

In case you’re wondering, submitting something to the commission for approval is relatively simple. You get permission from whatever agency is in charge of the space (we’re talking about public spaces, here), and you send in some plans and renderings to the commission. Then they do some voting, send it to Planning, they do some approving, and then you’re all set.

And to be clear, Parker wants to expand how people define “art.” It doesn’t have to be a mural or a statue. It can be light–like the Avenue of the Arts–or it can even be temporary art–like a performance. She wants to see some processes in place for the latter, which currently isn’t covered by Percent-for-Art.

“There are so many opportunities here, Richmond is just poised for it,” she says. Her enthusiasm is catching. “I would love to see something really big scale. There’s a lot of memorials, there’s a lot of murals, a lot of paying homage…”

It’s important that you play a part, though. We might roll our eyes at people who take one issue or another (the smaller the issue, the bigger the eye rolls) as their special pet and cannot shut up about it online or in person. But those are the people who make things happen, and nothing’s stopping you from doing the same thing. “The loud citizens! The people who actually show up again and again and again, those are the ones that have a voice. If you don’t fill out a survey and engage, you won’t be heard.”

Speaking of surveys, the Public Art Commission’s very important “What Would You Love to Slap Art On and What Kind of Art and Where Do You Like to Go in the City and Why” (unofficial name) survey is still available until a week into March at

Public Art Master Plan Meeting

  • Wednesday, February 10th • 5:30 – 7:30 PM
  • ArtWorks, 320 Hull Street
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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