By Janna M. Hall
Imagine Richmond in 1996. What comes to mind? For older Richmond natives, the word “conservative” comes to mind. For others, it’s “tobacco.” One longtime resident, when asked what made her move to Richmond in 1992, said that she believed it was a small quiet town, devoid of the hustle and bustle of a big city. Because of this, it was ideal for raising a family. For those who only know Richmond through the lens of their history books, they may draw conclusions based on this city’s history as the “Capital of the Confederacy,” assuming that this city not only lacks diversity, but it also maintains a less progressive worldview, one more in line with the dated conservative ideology.
Now fast forward two decades. In 2016, what comes to mind when envisioning Richmond, VA? Well, for starters, you’re probably calling it by its much hipper nickname, RVA. Where you once thought it to be a “small, quiet town,” you’ll find rows of bars, restaurants, boutiques and museums that host exciting events for the city’s diverse population. And that’s the other thing: diversity. The same city that had hosts of African Americans marching for civil rights on the steps of City Hall is now culturally diverse, with men and women of all races, socioeconomic statuses, and walks of life joining together to enhance this city that’s evolved incredibly.
And that’s the beauty of a city like Richmond. Though rich in history and traditionally conservative, it’s evolved into a city where change is ever-present, creativity thrives, and art of all types breathes life into communities. In fact, the most captivating development of this great city is its booming art scene. With one casual stroll downtown, you’ll encounter street murals so intricate it’ll inspire you to pick up a brush of your own and tap into your creative side. Coffee shops are filled with young entrepreneurs typing away on their laptops, finishing up their conference calls just in time for the shop’s live performances to commence.
Coffee shops like Forest Hill Avenue’s Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream host local indie poets, dancers, vocalists, and musicians to perform each night, drawing in diverse crowds eager to learn of Richmond’s talent pool. These types of opportunities truly allow artists to hone their skills and showcase their talent to a local audience. And it’s not just musical talent. Restaurants around Richmond boast the original work of local photographers, curating art walls that tell the unique story of Richmond’s development in only a way local artists can.
Many believe we have Virginia Commonwealth University to thank. With their School of the Arts ranking number one among public arts schools in 2012, one can only expect their influence to permeate Richmond’s culture.
Erin Gaskins, a 2009 graduate of VCUarts, appreciates the school’s investment in young creatives making their move to Richmond. For her, it established a notion that not only was the arts important to the school, but that they were invested in the quality of art produced by the city’s future residents.
“When I was in high school, VCU had a National Portfolio Day, so I went down and had my portfolio reviewed,” she recalls. “It was a good stepping stone for me. We went over all seven principles and six elements of art, and they took the time to really evaluate what I was bringing to the table and help me find ways to bring even more when I’d eventually enroll.”
A Fashion Design major and African American Studies minor, Gaskins got to see Richmond as a whole gradually evolve into the diverse and creative powerhouse it is today.
“Richmond’s a great city. If I have any regrets about college, it’s that I didn’t take advantage of all the resources that were there for artists and the opportunities the school provided,” Gaskins says. “There are some great clubs for artists; VCUarts is a huge program with lots of students, so there are so many creative people. You have the opportunity to collaborate with those people both in and outside of your courses.”
In addition to the collaboration opportunities, Richmond began hosting monthly art fairs during her time at VCU. A personal highlight in Gaskins’ undergraduate career, those fairs served as a fun, easy, and free way to gain exposure to Richmond’s art industry. The best part? Not only did the community get a front seat into the thousands of artists in the city, but artists themselves got the much needed exposure that would catapult their career. In fact, Gaskins herself got her art into a few galleries. She stresses that while it was a widely-enjoyed event, Richmond should really be praised for its role in providing fresh and new ways to enjoy local art.
Like many creatives from VCU, Gaskins moved to New York City to pursue a career in art
and fashion, two passions and skill-sets that VCU helped cultivate. To her surprise, she met handfuls of fellow graduates from VCUarts who she never crossed paths with in undergrad, but were now on similar career trajectories. The experiences they brought from Richmond only made them much more prepared for life in the city necessary for their creative careers. One graduate is Raven McLaughlin, Fashion Design major from Woodbridge, Virginia.
What McLaughlin loves most about her collegiate experience wasn’t necessarily the school itself, but the connections she made while in Richmond.
“The one thing I loved most was the people,” she remembers. “I was surrounded by people who were much better artists than I was at the time. There are lots of creative people in Richmond, so it was nice to be in that environment. And culturally speaking, it was a great experience mainly
because it was diverse.”
Living in New York City now, McLaughlin likens Richmond to Williamsburg, one of the more popular neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY. The arts scene is booming, with more live shows, art galleries, and creativity living and breathing in nearly every person you meet.
“Culturally, I needed Richmond’s diversity before moving to New York. It made living here an easy transition,” she says. “I didn’t experience the culture shock many have when moving to a big city. Because of Richmond’s diversity, I made a seamless transition to this much larger city, because it has the perfect mixture of being culturally diverse and open minded.”
Culturally diverse and open minded? A far stretch from a “conservative, small, quiet town.” But today, in 2016, we see an ever-evolving metropolis that has more to offer all of its residents, regardless of race or class. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Not only is this city incredible for creatives, but it’s ideal for free-thinkers and self-starters. If you want to be an entrepreneur, Richmond is your place. Named one of the top cities for entrepreneurs by Forbes magazine, Richmond’s evolution has made it an attractive place for business owners to thrive. And though it’s a tough industry to break into without moving to a major city, McLaughlin recalls peers from Richmond who, instead of moving away, stayed right here to start their own clothing line or open their own stores.
“That’s something I noticed about art students at VCU,” she remembers. “A lot of the people who wanted to start a business, did. Richmond makes it possible.”
Above all, Gaskins and McLaughlin both agree that without their experience in this city and being an active part of Richmond’s evolution, their careers in New York City wouldn’t be as fruitful.
“Fashion school is a lot of late nights and bonding over sewing machines,” Gaskins explains. “Being able to build those foundations and reconnect in another city allows us to harness our creativity again. So there’s something to be said and respected about Richmond’s energy, the people, and the creativity it offers. It gave us a solid foundation.”