The Fifth Annual edition of 1708 Gallery’s exhibition of light-based artwork in public spaces, InLight Richmond, takes place tonight in conjunction with the First Friday Art Walk. For one night only, artistically-inclined citizens of RVA will have the opportunity to wander amongst fantastic displays of brilliantly glowing artwork.
The Fifth Annual edition of 1708 Gallery’s exhibition of light-based artwork in public spaces, InLight Richmond, takes place tonight in conjunction with the First Friday Art Walk. For one night only, artistically-inclined citizens of RVA will have the opportunity to wander amongst fantastic displays of brilliantly glowing artwork. 1708 Gallery has been presenting the InLight Richmond annual event in various public spaces around the city for five years now, but has been a prime mover on the local art scene for over three decades. We caught up with their executive director, Emily Smith, to learn more about the story behind InLight Richmond, 1708’s role in the RVA arts community, and where she sees art in Richmond headed in the future.
Jacqueline Weaver & Timothy McMurray
What do you feel 1708 represents? You guys have been in Richmond for about 35 years now. For people who don’t know 1708, I think there’s some preconceived notions of what the gallery is.
What it’s always been about is contemporary art. New art. Art that is critically engaged, participating in that larger cultural framework of art-making. A certain amount of forward-thinking projects are part of that, whether as exhibitions in the gallery or things like InLight. Trying to be flexible and nimble about what’s going to work, that kind of ethos, I think, has always been part of the conversation. There’s always been a certain amount of [drive] to move on [to] the next thing. We’ll be 35 next fall. I think right now we’ve had a fair number of conversations about the next steps. Not only how do we make InLight go to the next level, but also with the gallery–what are some things we can embrace in order to really continue to be pushing at some sort of artistic boundary?
Having been established for that long, is there a danger of being too conservative?
Sure. I think the word that we sometimes use is middle-aged. Like, we’re no longer like Reference Gallery. When they came up, there was a certain amount of [nostalgia], like, “Oh, that’s what we used to be. We used to be 20 year olds making stuff.” And so we came to embrace that we’re not [that anymore]. We can’t erase 34 years of existence.
You can’t be what you’re not.
No, and there’s no reason to be. We can instead trade on the fact that, because we have a strong base of support financially, audience-wise, reputation-wise, we can leverage our experience and do things that are equally as relevant and on the edge, but require greater resources, or greater institutional support. We’re not a pop-up space any longer.
But along those lines, you’re able to reach out to connections at museums and institutions that are bringing people like Matthew Barney, which is not available to most local galleries.
Exactly. We can trade in that stuff in a way that other folks can’t necessarily, so that’s pretty valuable.
You seem like you cover a lot of different types of work. How much does the commercial side play into your decisions about exhibitions?
It doesn’t. In our budget, the income line for art sales is 99.9% based on the auction. If we sell something [that we display in the gallery], we treat it like a bonus, frankly. When we’re thinking about what shows to bring in, that’s not one of the metrics that we measure merit by–because we don’t have to. Trust me, we raise money plenty of other ways. But we don’t have to think about it like that. Like, the show that’s going in right now [by Soren Huttel] is totally crazy. I suppose someone could buy a neon light tube [sculpture] if they want to, or have him come in and [do an installation], but in Richmond there are not many collectors who are interested in true installation-based work as a thing to collect, not just to experience. We just don’t sweat it.
When you look at your exhibitions, is there any overall idea of what kind of thing you want to present in a calendar year?
Sure. We’re just starting to think about actually using some kind of idea or theme based structure to plan a year, but haven’t quite wrapped our heads around that. However, what we always do is make sure there is diversity of medium, topic, artist, so that it’s not all painting, or all photography, or all installation. If our mission is to present exceptional new art, we’ve gotta show all that that means. It can’t just be one or the other. So we definitely not only curate individual shows but curate a year, and think about “OK, we’re missing this [element], we need to bring that in now.” And some of it’s self-serving; you want it to be different every time, so you’re not lulled.
I know that the idea for InLight came from Paris. Have you held onto that idea?
I think the spirit of it is basically light-based work at night. That’s the core essence. In Paris…
They do it downtown, right?
Yeah, it’s a huge project. It’s also fully funded by the French government. They’ve been doing it forever, and it’s a much, much bigger project, so when we’re thinking about what InLight can be, certainly those examples come up. [At the] end of 2007, some of the board members were trying to think of something to do to acknowledge the gallery’s 30th anniversary, which would technically start in fall of 08. So they went through all of the [standard ideas]: “Let’s have a fancy gala, let’s charge $200 a ticket, have a lot of hoopla.” And they felt like that wasn’t what 1708 was about. We have an auction, a ticketed thing that costs more money to go to. We do that already. And a couple of the artists on the board had been to Nuit Blanche, in Paris. And they said, “What about something like this?” and that’s how almost everything at 1708 has happened–a couple of people are like “I have this idea.” And suddenly a couple of people get interested in it and then it’s done.
So this is your fifth year doing InLight?
It’s the fifth year, and we decided because of the arts & culture district, [and] because of the 5th anniversary of InLight, that it was a good time to come back to Broad Street. So we’ve got 21 artists and art collectives that are part of the exhibition, and then we’ve got a couple of community projects from Art 180 and VACLAA. Everyone else will be open as well–all the normal Art Walk folks. So it’ll be like a super-expanded First Fridays. Instead of 5 to 9, it’s basically 5 to midnight, although InLight proper doesn’t start til 7, because it’s not dark [until then].
There are a couple of performances, so there’ll be something scheduled throughout the night. Both performers are Richmond artists. One is a dancer named Rebecca Ferrell, who has been working with a local filmmaker. She’s compiled 24 hours of regular network television and spliced out the depictions of women, and she has a performative component responding to what she’s taking away from that process. That will be a large-format projection with her dancing in front of it. And then there’s a local band–I’m old, and they’re young, so I don’t know much about them [laughs]–The Trillions. They’re performing. They’ve got a whole light set where their instruments are hooked up to these light boards, and so they’ll be the second performance. They’re on separate stages. Then there’s just a mix of some projections that are filling the sides of buildings, some sculpture, [and] a number of interactive pieces, so the audience can be a part of actually making the art that night.
We’ll have the lantern parade–that’s what kicks off the night. We’ve done that for the last four years, and that’s proven to be this really great, very carnival-like way to kick off the night. We think of it as inaugurating the space. The folks make their lanterns, or they bring their lanterns, and congregate. We call it a parade, but it’s totally a roving spectacle. This massive amount of kids and families, the RVA Hoop Lovers, roller derby girls, all those kinds of community groups will come in and out of people’s projects. It’so a great way for kids and families to come down and be engaged.
Do they bring their own lanterns?
The way the lantern parade works is that throughout the summer and fall, we have lantern workshops everywhere. We do them at Visual Arts Center, the Children’s Museum–some are very do-it-yourself, we put all the materials out and folks can make them at their own pace and of their own free will. Others are directed by artists and are a little bit more elaborate and detailed. We also go into various schools and do lanterns with classes; we do them with the Daily Planet and a bunch of nonprofits who deal with very particular groups of the population. We have about 15 types of lanterns on our website that you can make at home, and some people made them at their kids’ birthday parties. It’s been this great project–some people show up in full lit costumes. There was a guy last year [who] was head-to-toe wrapped in twinkle lights. It was hilarious.
How did he power that?
You can get battery power. Some of the [exhibits] that are outside have hand-held battery packs. Light Tape, out of Chester, came on board a couple years ago when we were in Shockoe Slip, and they used their tape to mark some of the buildings where art was inside. And then last year, they helped us mark some of the staircases, because one of the things we do with InLight is we turn out the lights–all the ambient lights, streetlights, etc. The point is that the art would illuminate the site. So Light Tape marked some of the stairwells last year so that folks weren’t falling. This year they’re going to [use] these panels, as opposed to the strips, and mark some of the sites that are vacant, that we’re not using. So they’ll mark the negative space of InLight, and that will give it a bigger presence. It’ll be a little more artistic than what their other contributions have been. It’ll help provide a little bit of ambient light.
And the beer garden is sponsored by Magic Hat, so it’ll have Magic Hat beer in it. There’s always some sort of new component, some new folks that have some new idea that makes InLight have this whole other thing, which is pretty cool.
It’s like an evolution of the project.
Yeah, and it means that it grows in support, too. Year One, we had a certain amount of space for it, and then in Year Two, and so on, it got bigger and bigger. We’ve struggled a little bit with branding, in that we’ve had a different look each year–and at first, that was a very intentional thing. We wanted to work with different designers. And we found that it’s gotten somewhat convoluted. So this year we brought it back in a little bit, and are using photographic imagery from last year. Because sometimes people don’t even get it. They’re like, “What are you talking about? Light outside? Streetlights?”
It’s true! With some of the property owners, or some of the new funders, you start to [explain], and they’re looking at you like, “What? I don’t understand.” And almost always, they end up being like, “I’ve heard about that,” or “My kid brought home something about that.” So we’ve realized that there’s much more of a groundswell of knowledge, which is fantastic. We’ve especially found that in artists, and not necessarily Richmond artists. We put out the call for artists, and it goes out internationally. One of the things we ask on the form is “How did you hear about InLight?” And half of the artists who applied this year said “Word of mouth.” Which is really cool, that folks are coming and having a good experience. I mean, you’re asking someone to come to Richmond, spend a really, really intense 8 hours installing their work, plugging it in, and after 5 hours, taking it down. It’s labor-intensive, and somewhat exhausting, but I think the insanity of it is part of the spirt that inspires some of these folks to participate. And that’s fun for us.
It gives you an opportunity to take art out of the gallery and put it in a real-world space.
Totally. And as you know from G40 and Art Whino stuff, we could have any number of these installations in our gallery, and the getting people to come in through our door, because we’re contemporary art and all the things that might mean, is [difficult]. But [that difficulty is] totally erased by installing the very same work, which might be just as challenging, just as weird, just as seemingly arbitrary, out in public. And folks want to engage with it, It’s really rewarding to see that happen, and to know that we’re not just appealing to VCU School Of The Arts kids–that there is an appeal that’s much wider. Some of it’s the magical [quality] of InLight. It’s oddly quiet sometimes at InLight installations, which I think is a really interesting thing.
It’s kind of how people are used to reacting when it’s dark in a room. It’s dark and–
Now we’re quiet. Yeah.
In a general sense, do you think appreciation for the arts in the city is growing?
Yeah, I definitely think so. First Fridays is awesome. Think what you want about the festiveness of it, but it is an incredibly enthusiastic crowd, always. And it’s truly, genuinely diverse. Last summer when there were all these conversations about what was going to happen with First Fridays, I just kept thinking that this is so critical to us, and so indicative of what people want, culturally, in Richmond. One of the things that I’ve found is [that] certainly there’s tons of support for the VMFA and the ballet and the symphony, the more traditional venues for seeing or participating in the arts. They have great numbers and great audiences, but I think that there is a widening appreciation for truly contemporary art. 1708 and Quirk and Ghostprint and… Gallery 5 has their whole roster of events that have always been very successful, but [at 1708 Gallery], we’ve started doing Thursday night things to allow folks who don’t want to deal with the First Friday crowds a way to come down, and those have increased in attendance each time. We [had] an opening on [Friday, October 19]–it’s not First Friday, it’s the middle of the month, and those mid-month openings have gotten better and better.
And I think things like the support behind VCU’s Institute For Contemporary Art, the interest people are showing, is a big thing, because that is saying “We’re embracing this kind of art in a very, very grand-scale way.” It will be at the corner of Broad and Belvidere. It’ll be right outside our door, basically. It’s taking what [VCU’s] Anderson Gallery is doing now and just exploding it. They are getting the fundraising support for it, and the talks that they’ve had around it are bursting at the seams. People are super interested and super engaged with it. I think the other thing about the ICA that’s gonna be exciting is that not only will it draw a talent pool for applying students and faculty, but it might also help keep some of those graduates in Richmond. Because those folks get their MFAs, and if they’re not enticed with adjunct positions paying them peanuts and keeping them here, they’re gone. They’re out of here on May 12. So I think having that caliber of a space and the jobs that it will [create], you’re going to have to have more art handlers, more exhibition designers, and those are the kinds of jobs that artists are really good at. It gives them a way to use their skills and be creative without sapping their creative spirit.
But [locally], almost every component in the sort of mid-level of art making, whether it’s visual art, performance art, music, whatever, is really exploding right now. We have a juror outside [the gallery staff] who selects the work [included in InLight], so that it’s as objective as possible, and all of the projects she accepted from Richmond artists were by people I don’t really know. Like The Trillions–I would never have thought that that circle would find a way to participate. And Nelly Kate–she’s head of a multimedia project in InLight, so there’s lots of ways that [the local artistic explosion] is even coming through in something like InLight. One of our interns compiled and edited all our video from last year, edited it down, and we’re gonna use that for promo and stuff. She contacted the Trillions, totally on her own, and some of their music will be the [soundtrack].
It sounds like you’re taking the footage from years past and building up a history, so maybe somebody that is coming into it for the first time can understand how the first few years went. It’s starting to be its own beast.
[laughs] Yeah, you’re right. It’s starting to be its own beast with a more positive connotation than in previous conversations where there was a lot of frustration, pulling our hair out, and daily, someone going, “We’re never, ever doing this again. Forget it! This is totally nuts.” [laughs] We usually have a big conversation in the early part of the week after InLight, [and] one of the things we’ve been talking about–it’s good to think about what to do next with InLight. I think there is a danger with a really strong project of doing it the same way for too long. You don’t ever want to go out on a low note. So there are big conversations still to come internally, about how to keep it exciting. When something starts to feel rote, you’ve gotta disrupt that. So we’re trying to find the space to think about that too.
InLight Richmond 2012 will take place on Friday, November 2 from 7 PM until midnight on downtown W. Broad St, between Henry St. and Adams St. There will be a beer garden set up in the parking lot of Quirk Gallery, at 311 W. Broad St. For more info, visit 1708gallery.org/inlight.