Cover of 2014 Piedmont Council for the Arts cultural plan

Charlottesville staff has been asked to perform a preliminary investigation of whether the city should have an official architect or a staff person who assists the arts community.

Mayor Mike Signer asked fellow councilors at the end of their meeting earlier this week whether the city could play a bigger role in promoting the arts.

“The Piedmont Council for the Arts … is really at a standstill with their board and executive director,” Signer said of the nonprofit that has championed investment in local arts. “PCA oversees the Art in Place and First Fridays programs but they’re not going to be that strong to do that, much less do new festivals.”

In 2013, a Cultural Plan was completed by representatives of the arts community. One recommendation was that the PCA take on a larger role representing the arts community and coordinating arts and culture activities. In addition, it was recommended that the PCA partner with the city and Albemarle County to administer their arts budgets.

The City Council’s adopted budget for the current fiscal year includes $57,000 for “arts coordination and planning” but that money has not yet been allocated.

The Agency Budget Review Team had recommended this money be awarded as a “philanthropic donation to an appropriate organization” after the budget was adopted, but that has not yet happened. Signer said he has met with stakeholders such as Jody Kielbasa at the Virginia Film Festival, who was involved with the Cultural Plan, and asked the City Council to consider getting advice from staff about creating a position of city arts director.

“Right now, we just have basically nothing, and we have this money we haven’t been able to spend,” Signer said. “This is not that functional.”

The PCA has been without a full-time executive director since Gram Slaton resigned in 2015. The group has since vacated its former office and now shares space with the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.

Jon Peede, chairman of the PCA’s board, said the organization has advertised for a director and will open a new office space in York Place in January.

“We are finalizing terms to share our new space with a gallery with a particular focus on Virginia artists,” Peede said in an email. “The gallery will present art in a professional manner, educate people about art through formal sessions and teach interns about curating and installing art.”

Peede said his group had applied for the $57,000 but was denied.

“All applicants were declined by the city,” Peede said. “PCA was informed that we may wish to reapply in collaboration with one or more other art organizations. We were given verbal feedback that the PCA needed to have an executive director in place before reapplying.”

Peede said he looks forward to updating the City Council on PCA’s work. In the meantime, Signer said he wants staff to examine how other Virginia cities fund the arts when there is no active nonprofit doing that work.

“What I hear from the arts community is that there is a level of frustration that we have nothing,” Signer said.

Councilor Kathy Galvin expressed tepid interest in the idea.

“I’m somewhat interested in it but in the context of the broader notion of art and design,” Galvin said, adding that she would rather have a city architect who would replace the advisory functions provided by the PLACE Design Task Force.

Signer said he also would like to get information about how a city architect position might look, but he felt the arts position could be valuable to help the arts community grow.

“Having a licensed architect is different from what I would see as a staff administrator of arts grants, programs and festivals,” Signer said, adding that an architect likely would be more expensive.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she is lukewarm to both ideas.

“I haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about having an arts person on staff, and I’m still not,” Szakos said, but she added that she would not oppose having staff look into the idea if there is enough support on the council.

Councilor Bob Fenwick agreed with Szakos.

“The idea of government art scares me,” Fenwick said. “As I sit here, I wouldn’t be a big proponent of it but as long as it’s not a burden on the staff, I don’t see the harm in doing a preliminary investigation.”

Councilor Wes Bellamy had no comment during the discussion.

Galvin argued that the city needs a professional architect who can review plans.

“Are we going to be at a point where we are hiring more staff or are we going to need to be getting outside assistance to execute our plans?” she asked.

Galvin pointed out that she herself was the town architect of Fauquier County.

“I was hired as a consultant by them using developer fees, so I was their community architect,” she said.

Szakos said she was uncertain there would be enough work to hire a full-time architect.

Galvin said she could support a part-time position, as well, but that the city needs someone to look out for the quality of new buildings.

“There are so many times that it would be really important to have that right meeting at the right time with an applicant that would understand whether or not something is working,” Galvin said.

The city hired Carrie Rainey as its first urban designer in 2014. Galvin said Rainey has been tasked with plan review and contract administration rather than fulfilling the original goal of the position.

Galvin said the management efficiency study currently underway will help determine whether the city should hire more in-house architects rather than hire consultants when needed.

The item will come back before the council for its consideration during the budget adoption process.