By Madison Manske
The Valentine chose a day celebrating love to open its new exhibit “Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion,” a series of design ideas to tackle conversations about race and the five Confederate statues on historic Monument Avenue.
For over a century, the Valentine has showcased 400 years of Richmond’s history. Now this downtown museum wants to be at the heartbeat of reimagining one of the nation’s oldest avenues.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s mObstudiO and Storefront for Community Design invited teams or individuals of all ages and professions to imaginatively redesign the 5.4-mile thoroughfare. Camden Whitehead, the project director and associate professor of interior design at VCU, said the team of organizers have been working on the project for almost four years now.
“This is one way that design can spur action,” Whitehead said. “The competition is intended for the conversation about race in Richmond.”
The blueprints for each vision are hung throughout the gallery, so visitors can walk around and spend time viewing each one. The materials, inspiration, and impact of the design are detailed on the displays.
Some projects echoed the idea to introduce small history museums or create community art installations throughout the median.
“Intertwine” envisions removing the monuments from high pedestals and instead bring them down to human scale. “Constructive civic discussion” would be encouraged by “intertwining” all of the city’s cultural history and adding more context.
Another plan would create a dome-like structure around the monuments that lights up from within at night. There would be historical artifacts inside these new “exhibition spaces.”
“That’s really one of the powers of design – it gets ideas out in front of people in visual form so that they can understand sort of ‘what if something happened,’” Whitehead said.
Adele Ball, project manager and graphic designer, said the exhibit planners leaned on architecture and design websites, as well as social media, to promote the project and recruit applicants.
“We, the organizers of the competition, believe that design can function as a tool to promote more civil discourse about the industry and display of racism and social justice in our city,” Ball said.
The exhibit opened just a few days after Richmond City Council voted to rename a main city thoroughfare from “the Boulevard” to “Arthur Ashe Boulevard.” The road spans from the tennis courts at Byrd Park, named after Ashe though he could not play there when he was younger because of racial segregation, and the intersection of Brookland Parkway and Westwood Avenue.
“I think that it’s a good step in recognizing heroes and public figures from our historical past that haven’t been represented before,” Ball said.
Monument Avenue is home to statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart; the president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis; and Matthew Fontaine Maury, who commanded the Confederacy’s naval operations. The most recently added statute of Arthur Ashe sits blocks away from Confederate memorials.
There has been repeated vandalism to the statues over the years, and the avenue’s history — which stretches back to late 1890s — hasn’t aligned with recent social justice movements. Nationwide, these movements have sparked ongoing discussions about the future of Confederate statues and influenced the removal of statues in several cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans.
In 2017, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney created the Monument Avenue Commission to seek input on how to “best tell the real story of these monuments.” Two months later in Charlottesville, a young woman was killed by a white supremacist at a counterdemonstration of the “Unite the Right” rally after the city attempted to remove a statue of Lee.
Afterward, Richmond City Council Member Mike Jones introduced an ordinance to remove some of the statues along Monument Avenue, but it was voted down. When the mayor’s commission released its final report, it recommended removing the Davis statue, adding historical context to the other statues and erecting new monuments that told a “more inclusive” history.
“We hope that the competition serves as a model for how to conduct that discourse in other cities and other communities around the country,” Ball said.
The judges of the exhibit – a five-member jury representing architecture, urban planning, landscape design and African-American history – selected 20 finalists from 46 entries. Participants paid a $75 fee to blueprint their ideas.
The exhibit will run until Nov. 21, when the winner will be selected and awarded a monetary prize of $10,000. Visitors to the exhibit can vote on their favorite design idea for an additional “people’s choice award” winner.
Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, said having so many creative ideas in one room is important to the museum and the Richmond community.
“This is the inspiration point that we hope will be the jumping off point for what happens next,” Martin said.
Admission to the Valentine is $10 for adults and $8 with a student ID or for visitors over age 55. Entry is free for those with military ID, under age 18 and with Valentine membership. The Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.