by Park Myers | January 28, 2019
In 2018, For Freedoms launched its 50 State Initiative, a network of artists and institutional partners who produced nationwide public art installations, exhibitions and local community dialogues in order to inject nuanced, artistic thinking into public discourse. – For Freedoms
As part of the For Freedoms - 50 State Initiative, 1708 Gallery commissioned a public artwork in the form of a billboard by artist Sable Elyse Smith. The billboard is located in the historic neighborhood of Jackson Ward, at the corner of Jackson Street and Chamberlayne Avenue.
Throughout the planning, production, and programming of this site-responsive work, a number of exciting moments occurred both at 1708 Gallery and within the neighboring community. Upon reflection —and due to the strength Smith’s work— this project became a generator of important, necessary conversations.
Jackson Ward, the neighborhood in which the billboard stands, is a profoundly important historical place –especially for black history in Richmond. The first chartered, black-owned and operated bank in the history of the United States opened in 1889 at 105 W. Jackson Street. Its founder, William Washington Browne, proclaimed, “In 1860 slaves, in 1890 bankers." In 2019, this neighborhood is changing. Yet, as Smith’s work echoes in her presentation of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program final point: “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace,” Jackson Ward is still a landmark and a testament to how communities undergoing social, political, and demographic transformation, to varying levels of detriment, can come to together to collectively preserve and strengthen their cultural heritage.
This project’s presence prompted new and continuing alliances between prominent institutions in the neighborhood, specifically the Historic Jackson Ward Association (HJWA) and 1708 Gallery. Lines of communication were opened and fortified by thorough and committed action. Through this project, we were able to critically address the process and impact that contemporary public art has in a rapidly gentrifying, yet powerfully cultured place in Richmond. In a city where there is historic, catastrophic racial inequality, abuse, and erasure, and in a current political climate where extreme divisiveness is status quo, this project emphasized the strength in collective action for the greater good.
The work stimulated many interactions that may have otherwise not occurred. More than 80 people came together for a community discussion about the impact of public art like the For Freedoms Project. More than just an expression of goodwill, the discussion exemplified what can be done with and through the language of contemporary art. This was an opportunity to directly address the activity of inclusion and it was a reminder that, as neighbors, we can be better at neighboring. Among the panelists and the audience, it was deemed imperative that we continue to partner in various forms of community engagement. We looked at ways in which arts organizations like 1708 Gallery can be real assets to residents of their communities, and how we can be catalysts on a broader level for inclusion of all forms for cultural institutions in the neighborhood.
The artwork’s strength lies in both its reflection of integral histories of black communities (near and far), and its ability to bring together multiple voices with the aim of mutual support and empowerment. The For Freedoms – 50 State Initiative has opened up the ability for institutions to collaborate on a national scale, and we look forward to working with artists and more collaborators for the next iteration in 2020.
The billboard by Sable Elyse Smith, commissioned by 1708 Gallery as part of the For Freedoms - 50 State Initiative, is on view at the corner of Jackson Street and Chamberlayne Avenue in Historic Jackson Ward through February 3, 2019.
Park C. Myers is a curator from Houston, TX, formerly based in New York City and Brussels. Myers is currently The Royall Family Curator at 1708 Gallery in Richmond, VA. He studied Film and Video at the Maryland Institute College of Art and holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.