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Richmond's Fledgling Street Art Scene

Artists redecorated a dead space between two vibrant sections of Richmond. But connectivity issues still keep visitors away.

Richmond's riverfront has seen a renewed focus from planners and developers over the past decade. But what may catch visitors' eyes first is its most recent enhancement, a collection of murals along a once dead space between Shockoe Bottom and Brown’s Island, two revitalized sections of the city.

A collection of international artists transformed the former hydro-electric plant on Brown’s Island and a neighboring flood wall as part of the Street Art Festival. "I wanted to try to do an actual festival that would revitalize a place that had been kind of a dead space and make it into a huge outdoor gallery," says organizer Ed Trask.

The result is an engaging public space with the eclectic collection of works. "The public came to watch the artists do their work and that had a massive impact," says Trask. "It changed the area abruptly."

But connectivity issues and pedestrian barriers make it hard for crowds to access the murals. Elevated highways and railways spill into each other above and around pathways along the canal and river. The result is a noticeable separation between the riverfront and the city.

Searching for ways to address the connectivity issues, city officials pulled together a master plan for the riverfront. If executed, $60 million in public and private money will go toward long-term projects to improve riverfront access.

In the meantime, the remainder of Brown’s Island has become a critical part of the city’s park infrastructure. Historic ruins and the James River serve as a backdrop to what city planning director Mark Olinger describes as "an intensively programmed space along the water." The tranquil green space has frequently played host to concerts and festivals.

As for murals, Richmond will be seeing a lot more of them. D.C.-based gallery Art Whino held their annual G40 art summit in Richmond at the same time as the city’s Street Art Festival last spring.

The success of both has led to more work in other neighborhoods. Trask says he now gets calls to organize similar projects around the city; his collection of artists is working on another mural project in Church Hill, about two miles from Brown’s Island.

City officials are encouraging these efforts; they say mural art as complements their own efforts. "We think public art can be a catalyst for economic revitalization," says Peter Chapman, the city’s chief economic development officer.

Another mural painting event is scheduled for next summer and Trask’s Street Art Festival along the riverfront will now be a biennial event. "Richmond has been kind of conservative, a blue-blooded city kind of stuck on its status of being a historic tourist area," says Trask. "But I think it’s beginning to sway toward being the creative and innovate place it needs to be."

All photos by Mark Byrnes.

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