Between work toward a Maggie Walker statue downtown, selecting an artist for an abstract riverfront installation and developing a citywide art master plan, Richmond is knee-deep in public art right now.
Working behind the scenes on those projects is Ellyn Parker, the city’s first full-time public art coordinator.
Hired in October, Parker worked previously in San Francisco city government. In Richmond, she assists the city’s Public Art Commission, oversees implementation of Mayor Dwight C. Jones' 1-percent-for-the-arts initiative and coordinates projects with community groups.
We sat down with Parker to talk about her background and public art in the city.
You lived in Richmond in the 1990s. What lured you back from San Francisco?
I loved San Francisco, but my family is in Virginia. I wanted to be closer to my family. My two best friends live here; they lobbied really hard. I love the East Coast. I liked Richmond.
I had been watching Richmond for a while, knowing that I love San Francisco, but I needed to be in an artsy city that I could actually afford to live in.
What drew you to the arts?
I grew up in a very creative household. My dad is a musician, and both my parents were teachers. I have always been into art. I was in Richmond from 1991 to 1993 – I went to VCU and took a couple art classes but dropped them because it was intimidating. I couldn’t draw things that looked like things; I couldn’t draw a hand.
But I used to paint murals in the alleys in Richmond, and when I moved to San Francisco, that’s what I was doing – I was painting murals and running an art gallery for years.
How is Richmond doing with respect to public art?
There's so much that's been done organically. There's already so much great art here, with murals and all of the other stuff. To me, it's really exciting – because I walk around and look at the built environment like a canvas. So I see blank walls, and I see lighting projections and aerial dancers that would make this great architectural projection and how to fit in (with) coming infrastructure projects.
People wonder about the government's role and money in public art. Why is it important?
It's a hard argument sometimes, especially when you have potholes and schools that need money – why should we take public dollars? Well, when your city thrives, then your tax base thrives and more people want to come in and invest. When you are trying to build a city's growth in a creative economy and the tourism industry and make a vibrant, thriving city for everybody, the arts can help.
I'm a big take-art-out-of-the-museums person, because when you put it out into the public realm – into parks and public spaces – it becomes for everybody. And it's not just about making stuff pretty. This is my mantra, and I say it over and over again. It creates a sense of pride in a community, and it can also serve as a lighting element and a safety element.
What's the greatest opportunity for growth you see in public art in the city?
I think there are great neighborhoods that are ripe for art. I think Manchester has a lot of very big open spaces and that still-raw industrial feel. I see big sculpture. I would love to have 50-foot sculptures that you can see from the highway to act as this gateway. I dream big. I also think the riverfront has so many opportunities.
At the same time, there's so much historical stuff in Richmond that it's hard to add to. Church Hill is beautiful on its own with just the architecture and the old cobbled streets and beautiful trees, so it's going to be hard to add a piece of art that would really complement that. But I think some of the outlying neighborhoods are really ripe for it.
Do you have a favorite piece of public art here?
My favorite piece now is the blank canvas we have ahead of us.
It sounds like you were ready for that one. Is that really how you feel?
I am being honest. I can't nail down what my favorite piece is, and I don't want to offend any artists. I love a lot of the art here, but it's more exciting for me to look ahead about what we can do here.
My favorite piece of art in Richmond is the river, and the old architecture and the interesting people who live here.
There's been a lot of debate over the Maggie Walker statue. Are you surprised?
I was surprised by it a little bit, but I'm new to Richmond. I'm excited about having us do a project to honor Maggie Walker. We had hundreds of people at the library for our last meeting. I think it's awesome that that many people care and they're that civically engaged.
I'm somebody who goes to public meetings and has been civically involved by being that neighbor that showed up. My start into government was a yelling match with a supervisor over a plan to put palm trees in a neighborhood where I didn’t think they’d survive. So I appreciate it when people are passionately engaged as citizens.
Especially at that library meeting – people just wanted to be heard, and it was not just about that project or about the tree (that might be taken down) or how tall the statue was going to be.
You can't take everyone's input and have a good design. How do you handle that?
Art is subjective. That's why it's really hard for me to say a favorite piece of public art, because you know, sometimes the way the light hits the bridge is the most beautiful thing I've seen, and that's more beautiful to me than a statue.
Art is totally subjective and what one person likes, somebody else might hate it.
With a project like the Walker statue, at what point do you let artists do their thing and not manage through votes at public meetings?
The votes we took were for input, and we're smack in the middle of it right now. (Artist Toby Mendez) is working on his designs. I think the artists have to come up with it; that’s their gift. But part of being a public artist is you have to be able to take and filter though all of that, and that's his job to put his filter up and understand.