Featured Organization: Richmond Art Center
[Note: All answers by Amy Spencer. —Eds.]
When was Richmond Art Center founded, and why?
Recently, a volunteer working in the exhibition archive here discovered a manila folder containing Hazel Salmi’s notes, which described the founding of the Richmond Art Center. In beautiful cursive handwriting, written in pencil on yellowing, tissue-thin paper, Salmi recounts in great detail over forty pages the efforts of herself, local artists, and art lovers to establish the Richmond Art Center in the 1930s as a “community studio workshop.”
Among her writings, she describes the objective of this workshop: “To maintain and further in the community an active interest in the arts, graphic and plastic, and an interest in the creative hand-crafts.”
Salmi was a Richmond resident for over fifty years. She grew up in San Francisco and received a certificate in art education from the California School of Fine Arts (later renamed the San Francisco Art Institute) before moving to Richmond in the 1920s when her husband got a job in the metal shop at Richmond High School. She quickly became known for riding her bicycle out into neighborhoods with a small suitcase filled with art supplies, ready to instruct anyone who was interested. In 1936 she started teaching classes under the Emergency Education Program (EEP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Two years later, the center’s first home was established in an old Health Department building owned by the City, with courses in “out-door sketching, block printing, flower arrangement, color, wood-carving, and leather tooling” (chosen because they needed the least equipment).
In 1951, the Richmond Art Center moved to a twenty-four-thousand-square foot purpose-built facility in the new downtown Civic Center Plaza, where it is still located today. With the new building, featuring six studios and four gallery spaces, the founding vision for the center — as a community studio workshop — expanded to include an ambitious exhibition program, an art collection, and a rental gallery.
These days the flower arranging is gone, you can no longer rent paintings for a monthly fee, and the art collection has been decommissioned. However, the Richmond Art Center remains true to Salmi’s vision as a place for the community to come together to make and experience art. This year alone, the center will run art classes and workshops for more than five thousand adults and youth, and attract in excess of eighteen thousand visitors to seventeen exhibitions featuring the work of upwards of seven hundred artists.
Who is your audience, who are you trying to serve, and who do you hope to reach?
The Richmond Art Center recently passed a five-year strategic plan outlining a new mission, vision, and values. The plan emphasizes the organization’s commitment to Richmond; we want to equitably grow and sustain innovative art practices for all Richmond artists (whether youth, emerging, or professional) and audiences.
The Richmond Art Center’s new mission is: To be a catalyst in Richmond for learning and living through art. The strategic planning committee went back and forth trying to decide if we should use the word “Richmond” or “Bay Area” in this statement; in the end it became clear that we needed to center “Richmond” in our work if program participants and audiences are to embody an inclusive arts community.
We of course welcome people from around the Bay Area and beyond to continue to visit the Richmond Art Center, to take classes, explore exhibitions, and participate in special events. However, our target audience are residents of Richmond, especially those with limited access to arts education experiences.
As we all know, artists play a complicated and often fraught role in gentrification, suffering from it at the same time as they contribute to it. Could you speak to what it’s like to be an arts hub within a gentrifying city, balancing the needs of longtime community members with those moving in?
There are signs of things changing in Richmond; high-end condos at the Marina are expanding, coffee shops and co-working spaces are opening, crime rates are down. And artists are moving to the city! Long-term residents are watching these changes cautiously; as neighboring cities such as Oakland and Berkeley have been rapidly gentrified, housing prices have soared and communities of color have been pushed out. How are these changes in Richmond going to affect them?
The Richmond Art Center is excited by the opportunity to work with new artists moving to Richmond. But we know our work needs to be in balance with the whole community. One of the Richmond Art Center’s core programs, called Art in the Community, runs off-site classes at schools and public centers across Richmond. The heart of this program is a community partnership model that focuses on collaborating with community residents in respectful and responsive ways.
The Art in the Community program has been incredibly successful in bringing arts education activities to thousands of people, and in building relationships with community leaders. Our goal now is to mimic the achievements of this outreach program for our in-house activities. We are making progress! Scholarships and discounts are available so Richmond residents can take classes, and bilingual marketing materials and classes are aimed at making our studios accessible to Spanish-speakers. In our gallery program we are developing exhibitions that feature local, underrepresented artists and explore themes relevant to historically marginalized communities. These are some of our strategies for ensuring meaningful community impact in a changing city.
The RAC has a long and storied history, encompassing famous names, weekend painters, and everyone in between. What are some particularly emblematic moments from this history?
Over the years, the Richmond Art Center’s community and renown expanded with the success of its programs. After the center’s new facility opened in the 1950s, it became the largest arts center in the East Bay and was one of only a few local spaces where contemporary artists could exhibit or make their art. The first exhibition in the new space was a contemporary group show in 1951 featuring work by Edith Heath, Sargent Johnson, Peter Shoemaker, Emmy Lou Packard, David Park, and Antonio Prieto. Other notable early exhibitions at the Richmond Art Center included a landmark solo show of Jasper Johns (1963) and Richard Dieborkorn’s first major exhibition of drawings (1968).
Tom Marioni’s tenure as curator (1968–1971), has become a legendary period in our history; under his direction the center was a focal point for West Coast Conceptualism. One of the more memorable, and at the time controversial, moments from this time was when artist Paul Kos placed a giant chunk of ice in front of the center, blocking the front doors, as a participatory art piece (Marioni explained you participated by either watching the ice melt or walking around it). Other exhibitions Marioni organized included a piece of plastic by Terry Fox blowing outside in the wind; the words “Please do not touch yourself” written by William Wiley at the entrance to the gallery; and a sculpture annual with first prize divided equally among the 149 artists who submitted work (only three works were actually exhibited). The San Francisco Chronicle’s “negative non-review” of this annual advised audiences to “forget it.” At the time, the center was a division of the City of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the Head of Parks was outraged by these city-funded exhibitions. Marioni was eventually fired by the Head of Parks following a performance by one of Judy Chicago’s students that involved cow’s blood and a milking machine.
How is the Richmond Art Center structured? How many people work as part of the organization? Staff or volunteers or both — or some other configuration?
Fifteen staff members work at the Richmond Art Center. Eight of these individuals work in the three core program areas: Art in the Community, Studio Education, and Exhibitions. Additionally, each year the center employs approximately sixty teaching artists to work both onsite in our studios, as well as at offsite locations. Volunteers play a huge role here: We work with more than one hundred volunteers every year who contribute upwards of thirty-eight hundred hours in support of the center.
What is the greatest challenge facing your organization currently?
In October, the center’s executive director, Ric Ambrose, announced that he is leaving after seven years. An interim director will oversee the center until the Board hires new leadership. The next twelve months will be critical for the Richmond Art Center.
What else should we be asking you?
Why haven’t I visited the Richmond Art Center recently?!?