RVA Mayoral candidate interview: Councilman Jon Baliles on his role in RVA’s cultural scene

by | Aug 24, 2016 | RICHMOND POLITICS

Instead of doing comprehensive backgrounds on 2016 Richmond Mayoral candidates, RVAMag and GayRVA will be running Q&A’s with candidates (that respond to our request for interviews) that deal with each publication’s specific issues.

Instead of doing comprehensive backgrounds on 2016 Richmond Mayoral candidates, RVAMag and GayRVA will be running Q&A’s with candidates (that respond to our request for interviews) that deal with each publication’s specific issues.

This week’s interview is with Jon Baliles, 1st District City Council member and a life-long Richmonder.

You can check out a broader profile on Baliles here via the TD.

Here’s our conversation with Baliles; keep an eye out for more interviews in the near future:

Talk about your work with organizations like (Va Rep, Folk Festival) and how you see their role in the city’s cultural scene?

I was raised in a household where my parents thought the arts was a critical part of being a person and they wanted to expose me to whatever they could. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to it when I was younger but as you get older you kind of get into it and I can’t act, I can’t sing but I love live music, I appreciate all that stuff.

All of that is predated by in 1999, I started a website calendar. At the time it was called WeeklyRent.com and now it’s River City Rapids and the reason I started it was because I got tired of everybody saying there’s nothing to do in Richmond and you gotta go to the beach, you gotta go to D.C.. And I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?’ There’s all kinds of good stuff going on so I started putting an online calendar together and it grew and grew and grew. I was 28 or so and that’s really when I started to venture out into all the cool stuff that Richmond has to offer. From the early music scene to the opening of the National and stuff like that. Back in the day when like Alley Cats was the only place where you could really catch some bands but it all kind of grew up.

There’s nothing I don’t like. I love going to the symphony, I love going to the opera, I love going to an art gallery. I remember I saw Spokane at Art Six. That was probably 16, 17 years ago, like 40 people in the room, five bucks to get in but it was awesome it was right at the time they were starting to make a name for themselves. All kinds of little nuggets like that all over town. Sometimes you miss them but I’ve been on the Folk Festival programming committee which is just a fantastic process and group of people that really feed off of each other. And obviously Virginia Rep. All the professional theatre in the city, we’re lucky to have what we have. I went down by Virginia Rep. yesterday because I was knocking on doors in Jackson Ward and there was a mob scene outside of Virginia Rep. of people going in to see the matinee of Dreamgirls. And that’s really cool to see on a Sunday afternoon downtown.

So all of it, there’s so much here, even if you don’t like something I encourage everybody to go out and try it because it’s part of what Richmond is about and this is not a hard town to get around in, it’s usually pretty accessible as far as, sometimes stuff sells out but for the most part there are plenty of opportunities to see a play or catch an art gallery or something like that. So it’s not just the stuff that you saw listed, it’s the whole umbrella of stuff that we have here, it’s just fantastic.

The city does plenty to market that to people coming in and people who live here but do you think it can do more? Would you try to do more of that?

I would have a megaphone on my chest promoting all of the things I was just talking about. Especially because if you look at groups like Virginia Rep. and some other theatre companies and some of the other performing arts groups like the Ballet, they do stuff for Richmond Public School kids. They do stuff at cost for free. And that’s a way to expose people to, ‘Oh my god, maybe I’ll try drama when I get to middle school or high school.’ And that can lead to careers. There have been some great stories from Richmond Public School students through Minds in Motion and I never would expect me to ever be a dancer in the ballet but I never tried it, so I don’t know. But it’s great to see that kids are trying it and they’re having success.

So I think the next mayor really needs to proclaim all of the great things that we have going on here and expose people. And like I said in the article in the paper this morning, the arts inspires creativity in so many different ways. And I think it’s only going to help the city get better by exposing more people to what we’ve got here.

I was going to ask you about that quote. You were talking about your parents, does that appreciation for the arts come from them?

Absolutely. We would go to Broadway shows at what was then the Mosque and I was always into live music, going to concerts since my parents would let me go, 13, 14. So it’s just one of those things where I don’t know when the switch got flipped on but it was definitely flipped on.

From the administrative side, can you talk about the Public Arts Commission and how you think they’ve been doing if you’d like to see its role changed at all?

I served as Secretary of the Public Art Commission so I know how it works. I wouldn’t politicize it like the current mayor has. I think it’s an affront to the Commission and it’s politicizing something that doesn’t need to be politicized.

Can you be more specific? Are you talking about the Maggie Walker process?

The Public Art Commission chose a different location for the Maggie Walker statue and the Mayor said it’s going on Broad Street. Personally I think it should go on Monument Avenue but it being in Jackson Ward makes sense. And I don’t know this for certain but I could imagine the Public Art Commission chose Abner Clay Park because it’s across from the new black history museum, which is a jewel, and it’s three blocks from her house, which is a national historic landmark.

So it kind of makes sense, but I wouldn’t politicize the Art Commission. … I would love to see things move with a little more speed, but not reckless speed, just faster.

When it comes to getting private money to support those efforts, what’s your opinion on that?

I think the city needs to do more to get philanthropic dollars and business dollars to help support not just the arts but there are plenty of people who have a stake in the city, who — through their church or their employer or just because they want to do something that makes them feel good — they come in from all over, not just Richmond, to volunteer in schools and mentor kids and stuff like that. I think more of that from the private sector and more of a dollar factor from philanthropic donors and the business community. And they already give a lot but I think with a mayor that is proclaiming the arts is as important to Richmond as they are, I think you might see that increase.

And one of the things that I’ve talked about for years that I did when we first went through the Arts District discussion, because I was in planning the development, I was kind of the project manager on that for a while, one of the things that we said was, if you take the arts as a whole, it is the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company in terms of money that it produces for the city, people that it employs and impact on the city. So if you added up everybody that’s employed by the symphony, an art gallery, [etc…] then you’re going to have the equivalent of a very large company that you need to make sure that they are healthy and thriving and the arts are no different than everybody else in that regard.

You’ve been very vocal about your opposition to the proposed ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, what is the status now of the Lumpkins site and, more broadly, how would you like to see the city honor its African American history?

The Lumpkins Plan is proceeding, after the community meetings and report that was issued, and ironically, I remember as clear as a bell that two and a half years ago, we were told that that would never work without a ballpark. And now it seems to be proceeding without a ballpark. But personally what I would like to see, and this is something the Public Art Commission discussed when I was secretary, was the burial ground that used to be the parking lot, I would love to see a public art installation of international magnitude, kind of like what New York City has. … You’ve got so much room there in the burial ground that you could have something of that magnitude, massive, and then perhaps an interpretive trail all around. It’s in the flood plain so it’s tricky if you build it there… So maybe keep the pavillion part on the Lumpkins side and use the burial ground almost as, what some of the people have advocated for, as greenspace. But make it interpretive greenspace, where people can go and learn what happened down there. It’s a story that needs to be told.

Do you have any interest in the idea of a national slavery museum like the one that was floated by Gov. Wilder and VCU?

If Governor Wilder is still gonna pursue that then I absolutely think we should consider it, especially up at the old First African Baptist Church. But I’m not sure where the plans are on that.

I think we ought to look at, I’m sure it’s more complicated to do a museum than to do a sculpture park, but I would like to see some type of international call for artists to a, explain the story of what happened there, and b, think about all of the talent you’d get from all over the world that would submit something. That would probably be a stack about this high of submissions from all over the world but you get the best of the best.

That’s been somewhat controversial recently, going international or national for public art versus local.

Well you put out an international call because you can’t limit who responds … but I’m absolutely certain there would be local talent that would submit. But again you’re talking about the centerpiece, and then you have all kinds of interpretive other sculpture and art, education things that you can do around that whole site. So there would be more than just that opportunity, if it were somebody from outside Richmond.

Do you think the city currently does enough to honor the African American history it has?

Well, for somebody that’s lived here all of my life, until I was told the story of Lumpkins in 2008, I really didn’t know much about it. So people like me are still learning. Some haven’t caught up to what we know today so I think we need to keep working.

I wouldn’t say that we haven’t done enough but I think we still need to keep learning. I think there’s much more opportunities for education as well as either a memorial site, or inclusion in places like the Valentine or the Historical Society, which has their own Roots project, going back tracing ancestry and all that stuff.

It’s evolving. We’re closer to the beginning than we are to the end.

What do you think of First Fridays and is there any way you would tweak it?

Does it need tweaking?

Would you consider closing the street to traffic?

Maybe for a special occasion, maybe once a year or something like that. But I think, I’ve been down there a ton but I’ve always thought A, the police do a great job of protecting everybody and B, I think the mix of traffic and bikes and pedestrians is kind of the charm. Imagine being in New York City and not having cars and horns whizzing by you. It’s a different place.

Can you talk about how personally experience arts and culture and what you enjoy doing

I think a better question is what do I not enjoy doing when it comes to the arts. I like to experience it all it just depends on, sometimes it’s a symphony, sometimes it’s some weird, obscure artist that has a song on some commercial that you see or you hear it on Pandora. I remember, four or five years ago, Kurt Vile played at Strange Matter. Now he’s like playing the Hollywood Bowl. Seeing bands like that come through here, it’s pretty awesome. And you get a chance to see everything from the “high-brow” culture — a Broadway musical or a classic opera — to some artist that’s on their way up. But also going to the Science Museum. The “Speed” exhibit at the Science Museum is phenomenal. And you’ve got the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts not only bringing in exhibits but also continuing to build its own inventory of amazing art.

The supply of things to do is almost endless. For a city our size, we are punching well above our weight, and I hope it continues for a long time.

Jared Foretek

Jared Foretek

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