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.‘Richmond Renaissance’ Vision Ignited

Richmond Arts Corridor plan coalesces

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Imagine walking up Richmond’s Macdonald Avenue, from the RYSE Center to the Richmond Museum of History & Culture, and seeing “asphalt art”—open studios and galleries, maybe even a live theater performance in Civic Center Plaza. Long-disused buildings bustle with shops, restaurants and live/work spaces.

That’s part of the vision of a group of city residents planning the proposed Richmond Arts Corridor, which would also include 23rd Avenue from Macdonald up to the NIAD Art Center. A March 1 Zoom conference announced the plan’s progress.

“We see this as igniting a ‘Richmond Renaissance,’” said chair of the steering committee, BK Williams, describing the participation of key anchor organizations including RYSE, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, the Richmond Art Center, the Richmond History Museum and NIAD, alongside many individual artists and arts groups.

The concept, she said, would connect multiple communities, bring in new businesses and green jobs, and attract both residents and visitors to a renewed downtown.

In a phone interview, Williams said that although the concept of an arts “district” had been discussed for years in Richmond, it was only a year ago that the partnerships really coalesced. The longtime Richmond resident is a filmmaker whose documentary Against Hate, about how the vitriol directed against former Richmond City Council member Jovanka Beckles, who is lesbian and biracial, led her to connect with many city officials and artists.

Williams noted that other Richmond and Contra Costa County organizations, arts-focused and otherwise, have also expressed support for the project. “[All the partners involved] are being asked to work together for the first time,” she said, “and the response has been, ‘We’ve wondered why we haven’t been asked before now.’”

The Richmond Arts Corridor has received a $250,000 grant from the city for use in developing a master plan, and secured the ongoing support of current Richmond City Council members Claudia Jimenez, Melvin Willis and Cesar Zepeda. The group has an initial fundraising goal of $2 million, with an ultimate goal of $15 million to realize the full vision, expected to take five to eight years. Talks have begun with multiple potential donors.

Michele Seville, now an advisor for the project, served as Richmond’s arts & culture manager for 15 years. Although in 2021 the city passed an ordinance that “authorizes the allocation of one and one-half percent of all eligible City Capital Improvement Project (CIP) costs with budgets in excess of $300,000 for the acquisition of public artwork,” calculated each fiscal year, Seville understood the red tape involved in accessing these funds.

She also knew the artists and the city officials involved. When the time came to present the request for initial funds to the city council, she helped make the case for the arts as an economic driver, in part by pointing out how converting empty buildings along the corridor could open up studio and gallery spaces for artists, who could then help pay for their spaces by offering free workshops and performances. “There are successful models like this,” Seville said.

These same converted buildings could also house restaurants and other businesses. “We envision no dead spaces,” Williams said. She added that proposals such as AB 2881—introduced by Bay Area Assemblymember Alex Lee in February—that would build “social housing,” in which higher-income buyers subsidize lower-income units, could potentially be tapped to create live-work artists’ spaces.

Realizing that the Richmond Arts Corridor proposal required more professional assistance, group members reached out to Ratha Lai, founder and CEO of Critical Impact Consulting. Already well known in Richmond through previous positions with the Sierra Club and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Lai did not take much persuading to contribute expertise to the Arts Corridor plan. “[T]his is a timely moment to establish something positive,” he said.

His first suggestion was “not to try and do everything all at once.” There needed to be strategic planning, marketing support and the development of leadership roles, “creating a democratic structure for the organization,” he said. The plan needed to include civic engagement, with multiple discussions with community members on what they would like to see. All of these ideas have been fully embraced by the original organizers.

Lai is also involved in the fundraising aspect. A fiscal sponsor, San Francisco’s Independent Arts & Media, has been secured and local funders such as the Zellerbach Family Foundation have been approached. Lai coined the term “Richmond Renaissance” to capture the spirit of the project. 

The development timeline for the near future includes a year of community engagement and the following year creating some of the less costly parts of the proposal, such as banners and some of the asphalt art, and possibly some pop-up events or exhibits. Then, tackling issues such as renovation of the civic auditorium, which currently lacks modern lighting and sound suitable for many types of events. The visioning will continue, Lai said.

“The city is dedicated and committed to the Arts Corridor by releasing an RFP for community engagement, as well as a promise to find more funding to help with the corridor. This all is new funding, as Richmond already has the Arts & Culture Commission, which has its own projects as well,” he said.

All three interviewees were asked, “What do you see as the major benefits to average Richmond residents who are not artists?”

Seville replied, “Bring people outdoors to participate in the arts. It will be visually beautiful and also traffic-calming.”

The corridor would be BART-accessible and would bring people from all over the area into the city, benefiting local businesses, Lai said. “It will be empowering,” he added.

“It would strengthen the safety net in our community. The need for services in Richmond is huge,” Williams said. “Everyone would be able to walk down the corridor safely … it will be a place people want to come to. There will be mentoring for kids, showing them the possibilities of an arts-based career. We see artists-in-residence in the school and doing classes in the youth detention center.”

The dream is evolving, they said, and the will exists to make it reality.


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