RVA Mayoral candidate interview: Levar Stoney on public arts, First Fridays and more

by | Sep 13, 2016 | RICHMOND POLITICS

Instead of doing comprehensive backgrounds on 2016 Richmond Mayoral candidates, RVAMag and GayRVA will be running Q&A’s with candidates

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 Levar Stoney, McAuliffe’s former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

You can check out a broader profile on Stoney in an Times-Dispatch post from July here.

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

Talk about your interacting with the arts community or encouraging the arts in Virginia.

One of the special experiences I had was over at Art 180, and they did the [Prison pipeline] exhibit and talks at their place. That was very enlightening, not only for me but I also brought a group of interns at the time from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, to actually view the artwork they had around the building but also just to have the conversation. So that’s one experience that I remember very vividly because it was kind of eye-opening. The discussion was great.

But number two, I also went by the VMFA and saw the Forbidden City exhibit as Secretary too. And they invited us all out. Obviously I enjoy going on my own to the VMFA but at that moment I had an opportunity to go as a member of the cabinet and check out the fact that you can bring Eastern culture to Virginia without going all the way out East. To have that right in your backyard, that’s a window into something that you normally don’t ever get to see.

That’s what I think a lot of our places around the city offer, is that window into something you never really get to see but you get to see it right here in Richmond.

As Secretary, was there much interaction with that world, with the arts community in Richmond or Virginia more broadly?

More broadly. As the Secretary of the Commonwealth I assisted the Governor in appointments to boards and commissions and one of those commissions is the Arts Commission. So I got to interact with people in the arts community throughout the Commonwealth.

But also here in Richmond, obviously I leaned on Richmond a lot because it’s close, you can get to the meetings and we were doing so much great stuff as well. Additionally, appointments to the Executive Mansion board as well, I also had a chance to encounter individuals who are interested in the arts, who are doing great things around the city and around this Commonwealth as well.

Talk about what you think the arts mean to Richmond and the city’s identity.

Well Richmond is taking off in many, many ways. And I think the more and more newcomers who flood into the city, they’re desiring particular amenities. And that amenity is usually a community that features arts, history, culture. And I think it’s a driver through economic development, but also a driver through education as well.

I think when you look at East Grace Street, you see the Performing Arts Center right there but also you see restaurants have grown up around it. And I’ve been there in the evening when a show lets out and they’re flooding into the different restaurants on Grace Street. I think you’re going to see the same thing occur around the Institute for Contemporary Art on the corner of Belvidere and Broad as well. So that’s the economic driver part right there.

But additionally, I think you can see it as a connection through education. More and more children have access to the great galleries, symphonies and ballets. You name it and they have access to it right here in Richmond. What I’d like to see, though, are more and more children who are living in underserved neighborhoods actually have access to all the features that Richmond has to offer.

How would you encourage that and how would that manifest itself?

Well one thing I’ve taken a look at is what Denver does with their program. They have a My Denver Card, which allows any child who attends Denver Public Schools to have free access to galleries, museums, recreational sites, libraries, you name it. The city is their oyster. And the city of Richmond should be the oyster for any child who attends public schools here as well.

I think that it gives an opportunity for the Mayor to collaborate with the different businesses in the private sector who would be willing to fund something like this. I just think that for far too long we have had these great assets but there are certain people in the city who just don’t have access to it. And I’d like to bridge that divide.

When the issue of public arts spending came up and the Times-Dispatch did about everybody’s take on it and you said it’s not really an either/or.

That’s exactly right, it’s not an either/or question. The cities that are taking off, that are going to the next level, are fiscally responsible but they also feature arts as part of what makes their community great. And I think that this should be the history, arts and cultural hub of Virginia. I think we have all the other regions beat but I think you gotta have a mayor who is a champion for arts, history and culture and who puts it up there in the priorities of amenities that people want to see in a city.

What is your take on the Manchester project from an aesthetic standpoint or the process? And the work the Public Arts Commission does more broadly?

I think the Public Arts Commission has done a good job. I think the engagement process can be a little rocky at times and I think that as Mayor, I’m going to do my part to better engage the community on all projects. I think what folks are asking for is more transparency but also accountability.

The Manchester project is the rings? I couldn’t believe they were only doing it for $200,000. To get that price point for the artwork that’s coming down to Manchester, I couldn’t believe it would only cost $200,000. So I think it adds to the aesthetics of the city, on that side of the river as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing it come together.

It was an interesting contrast between that and the Maggie Walker process. What did you think about that?

That’s what I meant by the rocky community engagement piece to projects in the city. The City could’ve done a better job of engaging the community from the outset but nonetheless I think we’ve gotten to a place where it’s going to be a great project. It’s a long time coming that we recognized Maggie Walker and her contributions to this city and to the Commonwealth and to the United States as a whole.

Additionally, we get to recognize one of the great African-American heroes — I’m sorry, sheroes — of Richmond and it’s my hope that, as the next Mayor, we can recognize more of those heroes and sheroes that have contributed throughout the history of Richmond.

How would you like to see the City further recognize the African-American history it has? And how do you think it does that at this point?

Simply put, I think we can do a better job. I think history has to be our foundation, not our anchor. We need to recognize those individuals who built this city, who had a hand in building this city. And the thing is, the history of this city, it’s in our soil. It’s literally in our soil. And we need to do a better job in recognizing it.

So when I look at steps that are being taken for the Shockoe Bottom project, I think that folks are tired of talk and they’re ready for action. I think if this Administration doesn’t complete it or get it done, I think the next Mayor has to ensure that sort of recognition or memorial of the folks who actually built this city occurs.

Do you think that Richmond could become a draw nationally or, at least, regionally for that kind of history?

Without a doubt. There’s no better place in the country to tell the story about African-American history than Richmond. Like I said, I believe Richmond can be and will be the history, arts and cultural capital of this Commonwealth. We can’t get there without recognizing the efforts and contributions of those who had a hand in building this city.

As far as a National Slavery Museum is concerned, do you have an opinion on that? There was discussion of Governor Wilder’s plan.

I’m going to focus on making sure we memorialize African-Americans some sort of way down at the Bottom. I think it’s past time to do so. I think the plan for a national museum is valid, should be taken into high consideration.

My question is, how can the Mayor help with something like that? And I think it does take a lot of fundraising. It takes a lot of outreach to other entities to make something like that happen. I’d be willing to be a partner in something like that but my focus will start with public schools first. So in order to take on a big project like that, that is not necessarily high on my priority list. Schools are a whole lot higher than that.

Do you think the City does a good enough job at trying to bring in private money for art?

We could do a better job. We could do a whole lot better job. I live under the credo that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And we probably have asked a lot of the private sector contributors here inside the city, but we gotta think a whole lot bigger than Richmond, we gotta think a whole lot bigger than Virginia in finding those individuals who want to invest in our art scene.

And believe it or not, they’re out there. We just gotta ask them. We gotta go get it. And I think I am the only candidate in this race who can go finds those dollars to invest in arts, history and culture right here in Richmond.

You talked about Grace Street and the activity there, have you been to any of the First Fridays?

Yeah I’ve been to First Fridays. It’s always a good time. I love seeing all the activity on the streets at that hour of the evening. When you think about it, outside of Carytown, you don’t see that sort of foot traffic on Broad Street. And I think that’s what you want to see in a city. And it just shows the hustle and bustle of the city. And it just feels good because there’s just different people from different walks of life, young, old, all there. That’s real Richmond right here and I enjoy visiting on Fridays.

You’re the third candidate that’s talked about the pedestrian activity and the hustle and bustle on the street. That’s once a month. How would you like to see that facilitated in the city in general? Not for specific events but through better pedestrian corridors.

Crosswalks across Broad Street. We have to make it a whole lot more pedestrian-friendly I think. When I’m driving down Broad and I see college kids, even when I’m going east on Broad in the VCU area, crossing the street at any which time, I fear number one that I’m going to hit someone and I fear for their safety as well. So we can do a better job.

I know the Richmond Police Department is out normally helping out with pedestrian traffic as well. They do a great job in helping us navigate that but you’re exactly right, we can do a whole lot better job.

I know one of the thoughts was, can you actually close down the street for car traffic on certain Fridays? And that’s something I’d be willing to explore. I would have to, first, look at how to make sure we get the cars out of downtown so folks can get home. But, as you said, It’s only one Friday a month and certain fridays at certain parts of the year, it’s pretty light traffic in Richmond. Downtown is a little light on certain fridays. So maybe we could actually take advantage of those light friday evenings and actually close it to car traffic.

Personally for you, how have you interacted with the arts as a student? And what do you enjoy?

What I haven’t done in a long, long time is theatre is actually something I enjoy. When I was in high school I took drama courses. I guess it helps with what you’re doing today. It helped with public speaking without a doubt when I took drama years and years ago. So what I haven’t had an opportunity to do is actually check out a show. I would love for Hamilton to come to Richmond one day [laughs]. They would blow it out of here in Richmond.

So that’s what I desire. I’m really into checking out some shows. I have not had enough time to do so recently, but it’s my hope that I get to do so in the near future.

Additionally, I recently checked out the Mural Project celebration. That was awesome that they reached 100 murals in Richmond. That’s amazing. And these guys are the sort of folks, artists, they’re the seeds. They get there before anybody else into a particular neighborhood or community and everything else follows them. So more activity like that means a Richmond that’s headed to the next level.

You talk a lot about the opportunities you had in some difficult situations and how they’ve propelled you to where you are today. Talk about the opportunities you think that every kid should have as far as the arts are concerned.

It’s been a forgotten piece to a well-rounded education. I think we have to do a better job of connecting our children to arts, history and culture. When I think about my upbringing, I felt quite prepared to enter college and take music courses, to take art courses in my general education because it’s something that was stressed by my educators in my youth. But more and more, as you know with the SOLs and whatnot, we’re moving away from the importance of arts.

I think we just have to do a better job with all the assets we have in Richmond. That every child has access or a story to tell about visiting one of our great museums or galleries we have here in town. Once they can tell that story when they go to college or when they get a job, it creates a well-rounded student.

And I like the work that some of the groups around town are already doing. I had a sitdown with CenterStage and the Performing Arts Center recently. And to hear about what they’re doing in bringing more and more children in to actually partake in what they do, I thought that was awesome. You would open a child’s eye by introducing them and engaging them in art very, very early. But like I said earlier, more and more children don’t even know that we have some of the museums, some of the galleries we have in the city. They know nothing about it. And that’s why the My RVA card idea that I have, I think would connect those who are from underserved communities to the arts that we have here in the city.

Jared Foretek

Jared Foretek

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