Monday, April 24, 2017

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

I'm a firm believer that talking makes everything better.

It's a big part of why I've gotten behind the uptick in community conversations. Let's see, just in the past few years I've been to conversations on neighborhoods, racial issues, bike lanes, public art and tonight, VCU's Institute for Contemporary Art.

Since the ICA doesn't open until October, the staff is busy now holding these meetings to try to determine what the community wants the building with three floors of gallery space but no permanent collection to be and how it can be an asset to the community in a bigger way.

Already, they've identified their target visitors: VCU students, VCU faculty and staff, local teenagers and, wait for it, the curious-minded. I'm thinking I fall squarely in that last category. They've already come up with some clever ideas like using students as gallery attendants and tour guides, free admission and offering tours tailored to the specific interests of small groups.

The size of tonight's crowd was lessened considerably by the chilly temperatures and pouring rain I slogged through to get to the main library, but as facilitator (and fellow restaurant critic) Matt concluded, we were a small but mighty group. Step one was finding a buddy and learning enough about them - name, reason for coming, last memorable museum experience - to be able to introduce him or her to the rest of the audience.

Getting information out of strangers has always been one of my strong suits and former New Yorker John made it easy for me, offering up all kinds of personal information (and envy when he admitted he's already been to the Smithsonian's Black History Museum twice!).

From there, the group worked on lists of issues that matter to Richmond (and the country in general), finding that there was a lot of agreement on key trouble spots, with racial relations, poverty and education being the main themes that emerged.

But as you'd expect, coming up with ways in which the ICA can actively engage with the community on those issues was more challenging. How to get people who don't usually seek out art to come and take part in larger conversations? How to use the new building and all its space to best serve art lovers and art lovers in the making?

The discussion was fascinating because of the group's diversity. Several people mentioned the need to change the historical narrative by finally addressing issues of reconciliation. As one mover and shaker pointed out, New Orleans is probably the only U.S. city with more to atone for than Richmond.

A woman who hadn't known about tonight's meeting but just happened to be at the library provided a real life example of some of the issues at hand when she explained that she lives in the county but is dependent on public transportation, which makes it tough for her to get to cultural events and institutions after dark. I guarantee you, no one else in the room would have mentioned that point because it wouldn't have occurred to us.

And I'd even go so far as to say that that's a big part of what the ICA and all of Richmond's culture-focused organizations need to think about. How do we as a city get everyone at the table so that the voices are not so homogeneous? Is it realistic to expect people struggling with survival issues to weigh in on art?

On the other hand, is it fair for kids to reach adulthood without ever getting to experience the power of art as a force of change and an inspiration for mind expansion? I'll never forget my first school field trip to the National Gallery of Art and how profoundly it affected me to discover that such a place existed, free and open to the public, with such marvelous wonders to be seen and experienced.

Wouldn't it be grand if the ICA could provide that to kids whose parents would never make culture a priority or even adults who see museums as something for other people but not them?

The curious-minded think so. If we talk long, hard and honestly enough, surely we can make it a reality.

No comments:

Post a Comment