Posted by Bruce Miller
Phil Whiteway, Tony Foley, Jeanie Rule, Janine Serresseque, Brad Tuggle and I (all staff members at Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV) attended Tuesday night’s second Mayoral Forum, hosted at the Virginia Historical Society by Style Weekly and the League of Women Voters. Jason Roop, Editor of Style, did a great job as Moderator. Brandon Reynolds from Style, Sandra Jones from WTVR-TV Channel 6, and Michael Paul Williams from the Richmond T-D ably assisted as panelists, asking their own questions of the candidates and vetting questions from the audience.
The theme of the debate was Education and the Cultural Landscape, so lots of arts and culture professionals turned out. The five candidates (Paul Goldman, Robert J. Grey Jr., Dwight C. Jones, William J. “Bill” Pantele, and Lawrence E. Williams Sr.) all presented themselves well. But none of them seemed to have a real handle on the arts and cultural issues facing our city.
In an effort towards full disclosure, I mention that Robert Grey is a former Board member of Theatre IV, and he noted this credential during the debate. I appreciated the mention.
There was no mention from any candidate, however, of the large arts funding disparity that exists between Richmond and Norfolk, where the mayor has been a true champion of arts and cultural organizations, with significant success. There was talk from the candidates about Richmond being the cultural capital of the region, but it sounded more like well intentioned but uninformed cheer leading than anything else.
Most objective observers believe that Norfolk eclipsed Richmond as the “cultural capital” several years ago, and now functions as the arts flagship of Virginia. The five major things that will help Richmond catch up and re-establish its preeminence would be:
* a committed and vocal mayor,
* a committed and vocal business leader,
* an appropriately functioning Arts Council,
* an effective cultural plan (progress may be on the way on these last two fronts), and
* about an extra million per year in local public funding.
No candidate seemed to be aware of these issues. But then again, the panelists also seemed somewhat uninformed, and failed to ask the candidates to address any of the above.
There was only one real gaffe that I noticed, and it occurred when Jason Roop asked each candidate to name an arts event that had taken place in Richmond during the last five years that had particularly impressed him. Roop exempted last weekend’s Folk Festival, since that event had been so prominently featured in recent media coverage.
A couple candidates talked about First Fridays without mentioning any specific arts component. It was as if they’d heard about or perhaps experienced First Fridays as a festival designed to draw crowds to Broad Street, but they hadn’t actually connected with the art. A couple candidates mentioned public art in general, without discussing any specific work beyond "the fish project." Basically, all five candidates seemed a little stumped, unable to recall and describe a single performance or arts experience that had truly captured their imagination.
The gaffe occurred when Dwight Jones said, “The theatre at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts makes it onto my calendar every year.” He was referring, of course, to TheatreVirginia. As you know, TheatreVirginia went out-of-business mid-season in 2002, drawing significant media coverage. However, Jones otherwise presented himself well.
Another regrettable comment—the word “regrettable” obviously reflects my subjective perspective—was when Robert Grey said that we all needed to be proud of “our major organizations—the Symphony, the Opera, the Ballet, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”
I certainly agree with that sentiment, but I regret that the word "theatre" was not included. Working in a permanent alliance with Theatre IV, Barksdale is somewhat larger in terms of annual budget, and significantly larger in terms of annual ticket sales, than either the Richmond Symphony, the Richmond presence of the Virginia Opera, or the Richmond Ballet. And yet, as is so often the case, no theatre was mentioned among the “major organizations.”
Again, otherwise, Grey presented himself well. He spoke of having appeared in a production of Women of Manhattan at the Firehouse, and mentioned his Board service not only at Theatre IV but also at the Richmond Ballet.
Clearly, those of us who care about theatre need to keep working hard to inform our mayoral candidates and all other community leaders that our art form is indeed a vital part of the mix. Barksdale/Theatre IV has an annual operating budget of $5.2 million, and enjoys annual Richmond attendance of over 82,000. Also, we tour extensively to schools throughout Virginia and 32 other states. Until everyone understands the impact that Barksdale/Theatre IV has on our community, the historical funding gap that continues to exist between Barksdale/Theatre IV and Richmond’s other major arts organizations will continue unchanged and unchallenged.
If you are a Richmond resident, be sure to vote in the upcoming mayoral elections. The candidates are good and capable men. I hope and believe that our next mayor will offer a step forward for our city.
(Photos: The candidates pictured are: [top to bottom] Robert Grey, Dwight Jones, Bill Pantele, Lawrence Williams, and Paul Goldman.)