“Richmond has a totally different energy than it did five or six years ago,” said artist Hamilton Glass, who counts about 80 of his murals in the Richmond, Virginia, area. Glass, a Philadelphia native, was standing in the entrance to the new Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at Virginia Commonwealth University where a group of art lovers participating in a daylong University of Maryland University College (UMUC) art trip became the first adult group to tour the new museum, which opened to the public on April 21.
Glass, whose mom was from Richmond, was never a stranger to the city. He used to go there over the summers when growing up. For him, becoming an artist wasn’t a choice but a destiny, he told the UMUC group.
“Growing up in Philadelphia, the streets were my art gallery,” Hamilton said. “I just fell in love with the process of murals.” He described his art as full of movement and very bright colors.
After their meeting with Hamilton, ICA Education Coordinator Caroline Legros led attendees on a highlights tour of “Declaration,” the museum’s inaugural exhibition. “This is an exhibit that covers a lot of heady topics,” she said. As such, she added, the ICA strives to be a safe place to pose and discuss difficult questions.
Among the works Legros highlighted were installations and objects that grappled with the history and actions of the Ku Klux Klan, of slavery in America, and of the objectification of women. “This is not what you see in a polite Richmond gallery,” she said.
Legros acknowledged that some visitors have said they consider the show Taboo. And yet, she said, those same people might not see the 15-foot statue of Robert E. Lee—seated astride his horse less than a mile away on Monument Avenue—as problematic.
Not all the works in the museum were so sobering. An installation on the top floor, for example, addressed the notion of mending. Visitors could sit and talk with the artist or a volunteer and have their clothing mended at the same time. The piece responds, in part, to the anonymity of the mending process. In this way, visitors who want to have an article of clothing fixed can’t just drop it off, as they would at a tailor, and come back later to retrieve it. Instead, they need to demystify—to engage with—the process.
After leaving the museum, the group visited the studio of painter S. Ross Browne, who spoke of giving a tour of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) years ago to inner-city kids. “One of them asked me, ‘Where are the black people at?’’’ Browne said.
He said he told the children that one day he would have work in the museum’s collection, which would better represent them. His work, he said, is about creating dialogue, and like the work of the official portraitist of President Barack Obama, Kehinde Wiley, Browne’s paintings often insert black faces into contexts that one typically associates with medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Discussing one canvas, which addresses protest and resistance, Browne said: “I wanted to show something that’s not normally shown in the media: responsible black fatherhood.”
It was clear from listening to Browne and from seeing his work that the artist does a good deal of research and draws extensively from religious and mythological sources. “I hide symbols throughout my work,” he said.
After lunch at Croaker’s Spot, the group had a private tour of the VMFA with staff member Martin Reamy that covered everything from new acquisitions, to photography, abstract expressionism, minimalism and conceptual art, African art, a collection of renowned and opulent Fabergé “eggs,” and Native American art. About midway through the tour, the group heard from Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s new curator of modern and contemporary art.
“My mission here,” she said, “is very simple—to expand the conversation of the makers.” The museum aims to focus more in future on women and on people of color. “We really want to expand the canon,” she said, “so the story is holistic, not lopsided or one-sided.”
The last stop on the daylong trip was the wine bar and gallery C’est Le Vin, where the group sipped wine and listened to music from Mike Kemetic while watching abstract artist Khalid Thompson create a painting live.
“It’s about the energy,” Thompson said of his work. “It’s about conversation. It’s about connecting to ancestors.”
As the group watched, Thompson first used a brush to apply red paint to the canvas. Then with a palette knife, he applied in succession black, yellow, blue and white paint. A matter of minutes later, he was done, to widespread applause.
From UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key’s position, the day was a success. He noted that participants purchased work from several of the artists, which suggests their enjoyment. He cited as personal highpoints the openness of the ICA building designed by Steven Holl, the wide array of work the group experienced at the VMFA, and the chance to meet Browne for the first time, having known his work previously. “It’s good for collectors and art lovers to hear from artists firsthand,” he said of the studio visit and the live painting demonstration.
And returning to Richmond after three years made an impression on Key. “It’s thriving,” he said.
Art Exhibitions at UMUC
Through July 20: There’s still time to see “The Camera and Three Lenses,” on view at the U.S. District Courthouse, Greenbelt, Maryland. Learn more.
July 8 – September 16: “Paul Reed: Washington Color School Painter,” UMUC Arts Program Gallery, Lower Level. Learn more.