Creative sparks: The value of undeveloped spaces in Charlottesville

McGuffey South

John Rubino designs and constructs large- and small-scale metal sculpture and structural design elements in an IX plaza studio that’s next to the band shell. Photo: Eze Amos
John Rubino designs and constructs large- and small-scale metal sculpture and structural design elements in an IX plaza studio that’s next to the band shell. Photo: Eze Amos

Let’s consider for a moment John Rubino as the example of what an artist operating in the IX Art Park might look like. The fact that he is operating in the IX Art Park right now makes that a whole lot easier to do. Rubino designs and constructs large- and small-scale metal sculpture and structural design elements. His studio sits right smack in the middle of the back wall of the IX plaza, alongside the band shell. It consists of a long, concrete, shoebox-shaped space full of tools, machinery and raw metal stock. Classic post-industrial gold.

Rubino moved to IX two years ago from a space in McIntire Plaza, where he paid approximately the same rent for substantially less space. He works sometimes at a scale that the McIntire studio could not accommodate, but the size of his IX space is large enough to fit even his biggest pieces. Rubino is a pretty low-key guy, but he waxes almost enthusiastic talking about what the location and the exposure at IX have meant to his business: “From a business and marketing point of view, this was probably the best move I could have made in Charlottesville. I don’t think I could have found a better place. At McIntire there was a good amount of traffic, but none of it was the right traffic. I’m actively engaged in two pieces of work right now for people who just happened by. That didn’t happen at McIntire.”

Rubino built the sculptural chimes that are part of the public art fixtures at the park. The IX people engaged him for that work before he moved from McIntire, and, as a result of that commission, they courted him to move his studio to IX. It didn’t take much convincing: “If you hang out here and look at the number of people who just stop by—people are really excited about it. I think it’s an enormous success. And it’s still in its infancy.”

Stop me when this starts to sound familiar: fostering the work of artists by providing studio space at low rent; the synergy of a group of creatives all clustered together doing their work, feeding off each other’s explorations and expertise; a highly public location that brings audiences and potential patrons into close proximity with the artists and their work. …We’ve seen this before. We can see it every day, in fact, by just swinging by the McGuffey Art Center less than a mile from IX.

McGuffey was conceived in 1974 when a citizen commission decided the best use of the old school building with its expansive windows and big, open rooms was as an “arts and crafts” center. In 1975, McGuffey opened its doors to resident and associate artists on a co-op model, paying minimal rent to the city. It has been operating on that model ever since (with a few hiccups at times when politicians have questioned the value the city was getting from its subsidy—but its public art programs, and the impetus it provides for the First Fridays gallery crawl, launching scads of Downtown Mall denizens off into cultural and economic engagement every month more than answer that challenge).

The McGuffey Art Center was conceived in 1974 when a citizen commission decided the best use of the old school building was as an “arts and crafts” space. Photo: Courtesy McGuffey Art Center
The McGuffey Art Center was conceived in 1974 when a citizen commission decided the best use of the old school building was as an “arts and crafts” space. Photo: Courtesy McGuffey Art Center

But politicians get dollar signs in their eyes. Like Live Arts, McGuffey is a civic cultural institution that only exists because the choice was made not to chase dollars. In 1974, there wasn’t much redevelopment money clamoring to be put into play downtown. That was, in fact, true for 20 years after the mall was created in 1975. And thank God. Because the elbow room it provided to creative activity defined the cultural scene downtown and set us on the path to perennial entrant in “best places to live” lists.

If Silverman had had an upscale tenant for his Michie building space, Live Arts would not exist. If the McGuffey School had been sold to a developer and turned into condos or shops, no McGuffey Art Center and no First Fridays and no arts programs in that location. If there had not been nonredeveloped space at the east end of the Mall in the 1990s, would Fridays After Five have gotten off the ground? No Fridays, no pavilion. During the lean years of the Virginia Film Festival, after the Kluge money went away and before the Regal or the Paramount, would the festival have survived without the inexpensive venues of the Vinegar Hill and Jefferson theaters?

Working on this story, talking with pioneer creatives about their work and studying the SIA plan and the history of what made the Downtown Mall succeed has convinced me that the city needs to act decisively to create or enable the creation of something in the SIA that preserves and extends the creative entrepreneurship that is already here. We need a McGuffey South in the SIA—perhaps with an extended mission to provide cheap, rough, publicly engaged space not just to artists, but to groups, cultural nonprofits and perhaps even to minority-owned businesses.

Scattered all around the SIA are the seeds of the next Live Arts, the next McGuffey Art Center, the next Virginia Film Festival, the next Fridays After Five. Unless those seeds are protected and nurtured through the coming redevelopment, we risk them being washed away in a tide of money that will produce instead the next Omni, the next Landmark Hotel, the next The Flats @ West Village.

The choice is pretty clear. The path for making the correct choice, not so much.