Monday, March 12, 2018

Henrietta Near – A Lifetime of Artistic Generosity

Henrietta Near with Faberge flower collection at VMFA.
When Henrietta Near came to Richmond in 1955 to work for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the museum only had one building and a staff of ten. The only art gallery in town had no interest in exhibiting the work of young, vibrant and experimental artists like Henrietta. Modern dancer Martha Graham refused to perform here in protest to the city’s treatment of its African-American residents.
Richmond was a very different world in 1955. And, Henrietta Near played a pivotal role in forever changing that landscape.

Henrietta Near has that artist’s combination of a curious mind and an adventurous spirit. Exploring and creating are her life. And create she has. Her artwork is whimsical, colorful and pushes the boundaries of media – she has created oil pastels, silk screen prints, photographs, collages, assemblages . . . and art galleries. Yes. Art galleries. Art galleries that have become Richmond icons.

By the 1980s Richmond still offered little opportunity for young artists to exhibit their work, yet it was home to an ever-growing community of artists, some home-grown, some from other states and countries. Feeling a shared sense of frustration Henrietta gathered a small group of artists to her home to talk about taking a new direction. From that meeting, Artspace gallery was formed. Shockoe Bottom was its original home until it outgrew its space and moved to East Broad Street, where it remained until 2003 when several members moved to Plant Zero in the Manchester District. Henrietta with five other members remained on Broad Street until 2013 and the gallery became art6, another highly-respected institution in Richmond’s art history.

Henrietta Near's work arrives at Reynolds.
Thanks to Henrietta and her fellow artists, small galleries sprang up along East Broad Street and it became known as Richmond’s “arts district”. Continuing her drive to open the community to art, Henrietta was instrumental in starting First Friday Artwalks, the monthly “open house” of art galleries that drew thousands to the area. In 2009 Henrietta and the original Artspace founders were named Style Magazine “Richmonders of the Year” for their accomplishments.

Today, when asked about the benefits of
exhibiting art for the community, true to her spirit, Henrietta gets animated. “There is nothing like seeing art first-hand, up close,” she says. “It opens new worlds. It opens the mind.” When asked about the Reynolds Art Collection, she says, “Reynolds is a perfect place to exhibit artwork. It’s great for the students.”

To young artists, Henrietta says, “do what you love to do. Find what makes you happy. Take classes (Henrietta still does!), keep an open mind and never stop learning. Everyone has a different approach. You have to find yours, and trust yourself.”

Paintings and photographs.
What Henrietta doesn’t say, what she would be too modest to say, is that young artists today benefit from the part played by the artists like herself that came before them. They opened doors, they opened the minds, and they created lasting opportunities in the Richmond community for others to share their work.

Almost 65 years after Henrietta came to Richmond, Reynolds Community College is playing its role in her story. Reynolds is preserving her valuable and irreplaceable contribution to Richmond’s art history through its Art Collection. Henrietta Near, along with fellow artists Janet Gilmore-Bryan and Chuck Scalin have made generous donations of their work to the college’s collection. These works will be permanently exhibited throughout the halls of all three campuses for students, faculty, staff and visitors to enjoy for years to come . . . a fitting and perfect way for Henrietta’s legacy to live on.