On a weeknight in late November, local filmmaker Brian Wimer gathered a large group together at the Al-Hamraa restaurant in the Ix Building to share his vision for the future of the space.
The Ix is a large complex south of Downtown which has housed dozens of business and art projects since the original Frank Ix and Sons fabric factory closed in 1999.
Wimer, along with arts patrons Beatrix Ost and Ludwig Kuttner (who is one of the owners of the building) and sculptor Christan Breeden, hope to transform a large part of the space into an art park.
While the idea of a publicly accessible, privately funded art park is a laudable one, I had a great many reservations about the idea. Foremost is the concern about how the project might affect the surrounding community. All around the country, art initiatives have been used as the vanguard of gentrification in impoverished neighborhoods, appealing to higher-income transplants and driving up property values while driving out long-time residents.
Intentionally or otherwise, could the same thing happen in Charlottesville? Wimer’s presentation repeatedly cited projects like the Burning Man festival in Nevada and the High Line in Manhattan, but both of those projects cater only to the interests of the wealthy. What about people who don’t have as much time and money to devote to the arts, like many living in the nearby neighborhoods?
It’s clear that Wimer has his heart in the right place—at the meeting, he repeatedly cited the need for a space that was not based on commerce, noting that “the Downtown Mall works very well, but if you’re not paying, then you’re not necessarily always welcome. And you don’t necessarily always have a place to sit down.” The attendants of the meeting were almost entirely people of privilege—the group was racially diverse, but almost all of the attendees had a college education or higher, and were all already heavily involved in Charlottesville’s arts community.
A month after the meeting, I sat down with Wimer to discuss those concerns, as well as his broader vision for the project, and what form things had taken in the interim.
Wimer, tall, bearded, and wild-haired, comes off as a cross between a motivational speaker, a cheerleader for the arts, and a madman. But beneath his talkative, enthusiastic demeanor lies many insights about how the arts can break barriers and build communities, and he cites numerous examples from his extensive travels around the world.
“Each of us have different notions of what the place that we want to live in is gonna look like, feel like, act like,” said Wimer. “It’s our dream place—some of us have to move away to find that. But a lot of us have ties here, and say, ‘When is that place gonna happen, the place that everyone’s been talking about?’”
Kuttner is donating a majority of the vacant property on the Ix site to the project, which now has a steering committee of five members. But despite the free rent, the project will still have many expenses. “Our funding expectations are still somewhat nebulous,” Wimer said. “It could be anything from $40,000 to $40 million, depending upon the scope of what we intend to happen.”
Wimer hopes the project will be in alignment with other current plans for the city such as the Create Charlottesville arts study, the Strategic Investment Area development plan, the proposed re-design of the Avon Street Bridge, and the talk of “daylighting” the Pollock’s branch underground stream.
“We’ll want to give an honorarium to the artists who are involved,” Wimer said. “We’re going to need money for the resources to build. All of it’s going to cost something. But we’re trying to see what’s that balance, because I don’t want it to be that you can only have art and culture if you have $40 million.”
He also hopes to involve local schools, ranging from the public schools to PVCC to UVA to private high schools. “Really, all it takes is the combined will of enough people,” he said.
At the same time, he also hopes to find local artists whose creative vision can guide the project, give it coherence, and creative credibility. “We didn’t want to create something that was designed by committee,” he said. “Because I think that the role of artists is to provide vision. Artists provide a vision that is outside our scope of knowledge right now.”
Wimer said one potential idea involves bringing in picnic tables and asking the community to help paint them, with the hopes that a new lunch spot will make the space inviting.
“If we surveyed the immediate residents of the surrounding property, the first thing on the list would probably not be, ‘what we need is an art park,’” said Wimer. “So we have to kind of start from saying, ‘we’re creating something that is not on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.’”
Wimer also plans to hold regular events to keep the space active and busy, rather than vacant and “sketchy.”
“Hopefully, with respect and ownership, the community will self-police this space, to a certain extent,” he said.
Wimer said his collaborators have also cited concerns about local homeless occupying the building, but he sees that as just another opportunity for community outreach. “God forbid, there might be some homeless people who have some incredible skills!” he said. “And it isn’t like, ‘let’s put them to work,’ but let’s allow them to utilize their skills in a community-building effort.”
Wimer is candid about how he fits into the equation. “I come from a privileged place, and I have a lot of opportunities, and I believe that I can do anything,” he said. “But I’m a privileged white guy in America. I can believe it, because I’ve already got several steps ahead.”
Seeing the project through holds personal value for Wimer. “We can live in a world of fear, and just build a wall around yourself and protect that, but that’s not a community that I want to live in, and I don’t think that’s a community that’s healthy.”
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