"Art is at the Forefront of Social Change”—Angela Davis

"Art is at the Forefront of Social Change”—Angela Davis

By BK Williams

Rancho Market Mural, Designed by Richard Muro Salazar

Public art reflects a community’s values and history, and how we see the world—the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are. It is placed in public sites, and is there for everyone, a form of collective community expression.

Richmond has had in effect a "Percent for Art" ordinance setting aside 1.5% of eligible capital improvement project budgets for the acquisition of public art.  Additionally, there is a 1% fee for public art to private developers on applicable projects.  Public artwork is directed through the Arts and Culture Commission which advises the city in its artistic and cultural development in preserving Richmond’s heritage. The city’s budget shows the Percent for Art has amassed in excess of one million dollars for this fiscal year.  There was approximately $1.7 million dollars available as of the end of 2022.  (A&C Ordinances, Policies, and Procedures.)

"Rosie the Riveter Memorial," designed by artist Susan Schwartzenberg and landscape architect Cheryl Barton

What does it matter if we have public art in Richmond?  Public art represents an investment in our community’s future and demonstrates our shared values.  Art can impact a community in many ways including to help foster community identity, boost the economy, and connect communities and their shared history.  A community’s investment in its residents with a system of care includes arts and culture at its heart.

To plan for the future of public art in Richmond, the city engaged the services of a consulting firm, Art Builds Community.  After multiple stakeholder interviews, artists participated in the discussion of their public arts visions which included eliminating fees for artists as well as business licenses! The artists considered a wall where graffiti artists practice their craft and after documenting the new image, the wall is painted over weekly; rendering this wall a must see pop up before it’s replaced by the next artist.  The artists questioned the absence of representation for LGBTIQQ residents, and they described youth participation and how important it is for art to go where the youth are. Public forums and surveys are ongoing, and the artist's visions included creating in Richmond an environment that is artist friendly, and they recognize that art can also be used to invigorate the economy while enriching the city and sharing our collective heritage. 

Richmond has within its borders, arts related organizations such as NIAD (Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development), Richmond Art Center, RYSE, and the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts (East Bay Center).

Speaking with East Bay Center’s Dr Bryan Alvarez, Director of School Partnerships, the Center operates with seventeen administrative staff and fifty teaching staff.  Classes and the six-year degree program are free.  Private lessons are free for diploma scholarship students while non-diploma private lessons are still pay based for some students (several also have other private lesson scholarships).  The Center is working on making all lessons free. Most students at the 7th grade and above are in the degree program. The performances by the students are amazing and the level of involvement and skills of the performers is of high quality and culture. 

How are arts programs that serve students connected to their education?  Does this translate to public art?  If public art reflects a community’s values, then centers like the East Bay’s have everything to do with public art as the students reflect the history and the values of our community—about what is important, and what they experience as our investments. According to Alvarez, through the arts, parents get involved, students are more engaged, and art is a key place where students have more agency.

In a community where we are learning to reinvest in our community, redefine what public safety looks like and how to serve our youth and create a network of support, art is at the center of what we need.  Public art provides us with the makings to further reach community members and create a continuous culture  as well as nurture the youth as they develop their artistic skills.