The Visual Arts Center of Richmond has been a fixture in the community for fifty-four years, but it’s changing all the time. In January, the center will roll out a brand new open-access program intended to get Richmonders into the art studio, even if a traditional art class isn’t the right fit.
“We offer more than 700 art classes per year,” said Stefanie Fedor, executive director of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond (known as VisArts). “But we know taking an art class isn’t what’s right for everyone.”
Last year, Fedor challenged the members of the board of directors at VisArts to look at the way students engaged with the center based on past enrollment. Beginner classes (like Introduction to the Wheel and Drawing Fundamentals) had waitlists, but more advanced classes (such as Creating Multiples on the Flame and Natural Dyeing of Yarn and Fabric), didn’t always get enough registrations to run.
“We had a lot of great opportunities for beginners, but the opportunities we were offering practicing artists didn’t always meet their needs,” said Fedor.
Richmond is teeming with artists, many of whom have already received a thorough arts education at Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, Virginia State University, or one of the region’s community colleges. Others have been taking classes at VisArts for years. Then there’s a large contingent of artists, educated elsewhere, who are moving to Richmond for its vibrant arts scene, among other reasons.
“We’re seeing more and more artists who are looking for space to work, access to equipment, and a community of like-minded people,” said Fedor. “We want to meet artists where they are.”
VisArts’ open-access program is designed to do just that. People who are enrolled in a class at VisArts get free studio access, but if they would prefer to work independently, outside the confines of a class, they can pay for hourly, session-long, or yearlong studio access. Open studio hours are posted online.
Ginny Benton is a local jewelry artist who works primarily in metals. She was a resident artist at VisArts in 2014-15, and now works out of a shared studio space in Scott’s Addition. When she needs access to a vacuum caster and burnout kiln, she likes to use VisArts’ metals studio. “Using the space and equipment at VisArts has been a great way to get started as a professional jeweler,” said Benton. “Casting equipment is expensive to own and maintain, and I love the people I get to work with when I’m at VisArts.”
“We know there are a lot of artists like Ginny,” said Fedor. “People who are already passionate about what they’re making and how they’re making it, and just need the space to create.”
VisArts is home to fifteen professional art studios in eleven different media, including clay, creative writing, digital arts, drawing and painting, fiber, glass, letterpress, metals, photography, printmaking, and wood. To ensure the studios are used safely, VisArts has recruited a few dozen studio monitors – artists who volunteer to look out for the studios in exchange for free studio access and other benefits – as well as two new studio coordinators who keep things organized.
One of those studio coordinators is Sophie Treppendahl, a painter who recently moved to Richmond from Charleston, South Carolina. She says she was drawn to Richmond in part because of the city’s appetite for contemporary art. “It’s important for me to feel supported.”
When Treppendahl isn’t working in her own studio, she’s helping VisArts prepare its studios for the launch of the open-studio access program. The center’s darkroom is in the midst of a renovation, and other studios are being cleaned and reorganized for what Fedor forecasts will be a sharp increase in use.
“When our winter catalog is released, people will have more choices,” said Fedor. “They can choose to take a class, they can choose to pay for studio access, or they can do some combination of both. We’re excited about giving people more ways to make art.”
The Visual Arts Center will begin pre-selling session-long and yearlong studio access in December. During an open-studio happy hour scheduled for next month, members of the community can tour the center and get more information about the program.
“At VisArts, our motto is, ‘Art for everyone. Creativity for life.’ Opening up our studios to everyone feels like we’re living it,” said Fedor.