RVA Mayoral candidate interview: Jack Berry on maintaining the city’s thriving art scene

by | Aug 11, 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 Jack Berry who has served as Executive Director of Venture Richmond for 10 years.

What are some of the accomplishments with Venture Richmond that you’re most proud of and what it means to the city?

I’m most proud of the role Venture Richmond played in organizing and producing the Richmond Folk Festival, which is a symbol of inclusion and creativity and diversity. Folk Festival has brought the Richmond community together and made us feel proud about our city. It’s shown that we can do audacious, cool things on a big scale really well. People think differently about their city now than they did before the Folk Festival.

It’s amazing how inclusive it is and how it brings people together, everything from hip hop to Southwest Virginia bluegrass and Russian throat singers. It’s a model of bringing a diverse array of cultural arts to the city.

What sort of impact has that event made on Richmond?

It’s staggering. The impact it’s had and the number of people it’s had, it’s grown to be 200,000 people over a weekend when the weather is good. It’s the largest weekend folk festival in the United States. It’s something that people look forward to every year.

My role was to organize it, pull together the financial resources to do it and to make sure that we had strong teams working on it. Everything from programming to production of the event itself. If you look at the Programming Committee of the Richmond Folk Festival, you won’t find anywhere a more diverse and creative and knowledgeable group of people. Everything from Chris Bopst, founding member of GWAR, to Don Harrison, to Otto Konrad, it’s an eclectic group of people who know music and culture more than any group you could probably assemble. They know the difference between East African art and West African art and they can tell you who the lead figures are in every genre of music probably in the world. So who would’ve thought a guy like me would be the guy behind the Richmond Folk Festival? But it’s an ability to bring people together across a wide spectrum of talents, find the resources to empower them and produce something magical.

So you’re very comfortable in those circles? It doesn’t necessarily fit with the brand of your candidacy.

People want to pigeonhole me as, well, I don’t even want to go there [laughs]. But the RVA branding campaign is another good example. Everybody said we need a slogan, and we need a jingle and we need a logo and we need to push it out like a Chamber of Commerce campaign. And we did just the opposite of that. We brought together the most creative people in Richmond at the VCU Brandcenter, the Martin Agency, J H I, Elevation, West Cary Group, and others and they told us that municipal branding campaigns don’t work and that we needed to take a grassroots, open source approach. RVA was born and it’s been embraced across the city and the whole region. It’s probably the strongest municipal branding campaign in the country. And it was done because we had the ability to bring together a really diverse group of creative people to do their best work.

I didn’t come up with it but I helped enable a team that came up with it. That’s a skill that I want to take to the Mayor’s Office, bringing the community together, assembling the best and brightest, the most diverse group of people that we can to tackle every issue that we have.

There are a lot of really creative, interesting people here that are dying to be part of making Richmond all that it can be, they just need to be empowered and included, from millennials to everyone else.

Talking about the arts in general and how you experience them, how important do you think that is to the identity of the city?

The arts are one of the biggest attractions that we have in Richmond. Anchored by VCU and all the graduates and folks that are attracted to Richmond’s art scene, it’s one of the proof points of an up and coming city that’s trying to be attractive to millennials.

You have to have an arts scene, you have to have a food scene, beer scene, outdoor recreational amenities. So the arts scene is just a critical component and we’ve got a stronger arts scene than most any community I can think of because of VCU’s arts school, because of Joe Sciple, because of the sculpture program and because of the VCU Brandcenter. There are a lot of creative people here of all disciplines that make this a vibrant, cool place. It’s one of the biggest advantages that we have.

How do you enjoy it as a resident? You opened your office in Jackson Ward, do you go to the First Fridays, visit the galleries over there?

My wife and I enjoy participating in First Fridays, we enjoy the Jazz Festival, we enjoy Friday Cheers, which my organization has produced for the last 10 years that I was there. Of course we enjoy the Folk Festival, the galleries, it’s an important part of our lives.

Would you consider closing some of the Broad Street area to traffic on First Fridays

I think the traffic on Broad Street helps create a really exciting atmosphere. On some nights during First Fridays it feels like New York City with all the traffic and the people on the sidewalks and the galleries and the music and the street performers. I think the more of everything the better, so I wouldn’t want to change that environment and make it feel more suburban. I love the congestion and the busy vibe. To me it all works together.

Has there been a show or exhibit or something along those lines that you’ve seen recently that stuck out to you?

Seeing Grandmaster Flash at the Folk Festival and seeing the diverse audience and their reaction to his positive message of love and inclusion was something I probably won’t forget. It was one of the most diverse audiences we’ve ever had and there were a lot of folks that told us we shouldn’t do hip hop, but hip hop is now an important art form that qualifies for a Folk Festival, and most people wouldn’t expect that. That was a magical moment that I’ll always remember, mostly because of the audience reaction. Sometimes you think of hip hop as emphasizing violence or sometimes can be degrading, but this was an experience of love and brotherhood, it was great.

How do you think the city has done so far in terms of emphasizing and building on the cultural activity of the city? And its own work with the Public Art Commission.

We’ve done some creative things like the Mural Project that have set us apart and garnered international attention and show us to be an edgy locality. I’m disappointed that we haven’t done more in the area of public sculpture because we have the best sculpture school in the country and why aren’t we known for public sculpture? I think that’s an area that we should focus on a lot more to take advantage of the strengths we have and I’m surprised that hasn’t happened. We always go find an artist from somewhere else and we have a lot of really talented people here. And we, of course, want to attract international attention and the very, very best artists in the world. But we have some of those right here.

The Public Art Commission has been in the news with the Maggie Walker project. How do you think that was handled and are you supportive of the plan as it stands now?

A major monument to Maggie Walker is long overdue, that seems to be the perfect location for it and I’m pleased that we’re finally going to get that done. Everybody has a different concept of what makes good art and some people wanted a different configuration for the plaza. Some people thought it should be angular rather than feature concentric circles because it was an angular site, some people thought the statue should be larger or smaller, some thought she should be kneeling talking to children, some people thought it should be more grand. But the public arts process is a way to sort out competing interests and I think they’ve arrived at a good place.

Something you’ve touted is your ability to bring in private money where it’s appropriate. One of the criticisms of that process was that it didn’t make enough of an effort to do that.

I haven’t followed that process closely and I never paid attention to the funding plan for the project so I’m not sure why it’s now eating up so much of the Public Art Commission’s budget. But I’ve done a very good job in my career of securing money from the private sector and major corporations to do cool things that make Richmond more vibrant. To put it bluntly, I’ve extracted a lot of money out of corporations for things that have made Richmond a great arts town and a vibrant place for young people to want to live. And there’s a role for the private sector to play. They are usually attracted to things that are successful. Success breeds success. So, can you demonstrate that you have competency? That you’re going to be inclusive? That their money’s not going to be wasted and that you’re going to get a good result? Money can be found.

What the corporations don’t want to do is pour money into something that’s dysfunctional, characterized by cronyism or a process that’s not transparent. But if you can convince them that you can give a return on investment on that money, it’s there to be had. And I’m really good at finding it.

Who would’ve thought that major corporations would support the mural project, given the nature of the art?

There’s been discussion on how the city can better honor its black history. Is that something that would be a priority for you?

Richmond is way behind in honoring its African American history. It’s past time to be more inclusive and to balance the public art that is associated with African Americans. So far it’s mostly Confederate generals on the losing side of a war. I think we need to add context to those statues and have some sort of signage that helps balance the real story and puts those statues in perspective. And then we need a lot more statues of important African American figures all over Richmond so it’s a balanced presentation of our history. Today it’s terribly one-sided and we need to tell the whole story and the accurate story with honesty.

You had an interesting run-in with that when it came to the Shockoe Bottom baseball plan. Is there something that you’d like to see go in or around that site that would honor that history?

I think we need to tell the story of slavery in Richmond in a complete way and that includes the Lumpkins Jail site as well as the burial grounds as well as other sites in Shockoe and throughout downtown. The first step in doing that is to acquire the property because we can’t do anything about telling more of the story in Shockoe if the property is not owned by the public. So I would like to see some of those sites acquired so that appropriate monuments or a park can be constructed that would help tell that important part of our history.

Talk about your experience with the riverfront development, the Canal Walk, Brown’s Island and that area.

My organization is responsible for maintenance of the riverfront canal system, operation of the canal boats, maintenance of Brown’s Island and Tredegar Green and our job is to animate those public spaces and maintain them at a very high level and attract people to downtown.

We’ve been very successful and what you’ll find is that every sprinkler head is operational, every season there’s fresh mulch, we take great care of keeping the landscaping beautiful and it’s a standard of care that comes from leadership and good execution, something we need not just on the Canal Walk but throughout our city. I’m very supportive of the Riverfront Plan, the Downtown Master Plan, the new Potterfield Bride and more connections to the riverfront and more activities on the riverfront because it is an incredible beautiful asset that we have. Obviously it’s been discovered, all you have to do is go down to Belle Isle on any weekend and see the hordes of people that want to be in this wilderness environment right in the middle of a city.

Final message to voters about what kind of mayor you would be when it comes to the arts?

We’re gonna celebrate the artistic attributes of our city and make sure everybody in America knows that we’re an arts town. And we’re gonna include as many people as possible in that effort and it’s gonna make it a much more exciting place to live. It’s one of our key strengths that other cities don’t have and we need to utilize it to the max?

Do you think we’ve marketed that enough to the rest of the region?

I think people are catching on. We’re on all these lists of cool places to live, VCU arts is recognized around the country. Everybody knows that we’re becoming more and more like Austin, Boulder, Portland and it’s an affordable community. It’s a community where people can get engaged, make a difference, and become a part of shaping their city. You can’t do that in a lot of bigger cities, you can do that here. You can be in the mix and making a difference within a week of being here. The arts scene is one of the attributes that we have that a lot of other cities don’t have.

Richmond’s on a roll. Our population is growing again. People want to be here. People want what we’ve got. The city is crackling hot. Unfortunately we’ve got a city government that’s not keeping up and just doing it’s part. And so I emphasize essential basic services because I think if you’re not able to do that, you don’t have the credibility to tackle the big problems and opportunities. If you can’t get your financial house in order, if you can’t provide basic services, nobody wants to partner with you because you don’t have your act together so that’s just a baseline condition for every great city. If we’re going to be a great city then we’ve gotta get that sorted out immediately. And from that will lead to big opportunities where you have a lot of people wanting to be a player because they’re on a team that’s successful and incredible.

Keep an eye on our site for future interviews with candidates. You can check out our interview with mayoral candidate Jon Baliles and his views on LGBTQ issues here.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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