Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014
Fredrika Jacobs, professor emerita of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes it is fair to say that Richmond’s contemporary art scene and robust reputation as an incubator for talented, cutting-edge artists began more than 30 years ago in the house Beverly Reynolds shared with her family in the Fan.
It was there that Reynolds started a gallery in the 1980s that showcased the work of contemporary artists, both prominent and not-yet-known. She was a frequent visitor to New York City, where she would scour galleries and consult with dealers, eventually returning to Richmond with her station wagon loaded with “amazing works” from the likes of Warhol, Katz and Rauschenberg, among others, Jacobs said.
From the start, Reynolds was not solely interested in the works of the most celebrated artists. She recognized the abundant talent that Richmond and the VCU School of the Arts had to offer, and she showed the work of local artists alongside the boldfaced names of the contemporary art world. She helped local artists find a new prominence, first in the city and then well beyond it. In effect, Jacobs said, Reynolds was the key figure to waking up the city to the gift of their top-tier artists, driven by “a remarkable sense of vision … augmented by seemingly limitless energy and dedication of purpose.”
“Perhaps it took someone coming from the outside, someone who could see what so many others could not. Perhaps,” Jacobs said. “But what it really took was someone with vision in the most expansive sense of the word. Bev had a critical eye and she was a visionary. She saw what was here and she saw what could be here.”
Reynolds died Nov. 23 at the age of 68 of complications from cancer. Members of the VCU community were among the mourners for a woman whose impact was “immeasurable,” according to Elizabeth King, professor of sculpture at VCU. “It was impossible for one person to do as much as she did,” she said.
Joe Seipel, dean of the VCU School of the Arts, spoke at Reynolds’ memorial service about the myriad ways she helped boost the VCU arts community: showcasing the work of students, alumni and professors at the Reynolds Gallery, which moved from her home to West Main Street; serving as a founder of the Pollak Society, which provides research and travel opportunities and scholarships for students; and visiting as a frequent contributor to graduate seminar classes, where she taught students “how to market their artwork, the etiquette needed to work with curators and how they needed to develop their business practice as they moved into the professional world.”
Her work with VCU and the larger community was propelled by her conviction that she recognized something special here.
“Bev always said that Richmond was the most important arts center south of New York City,” Seipel said. “She believed that and worked every day of her life to make that a reality.”
Reynolds also was a central driving force for 15 years behind the push for VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, the 43,000 square-foot non-collecting museum scheduled to open in 2016. In honor of her persistent, tireless advocacy for the project and for her influence on local arts, VCU announced in October that the first-floor gallery in the ICA will be named for Reynolds.
“This important new institution will be part of Bev’s incredible legacy,” Seipel said. “I know that every time I step into the Institute for Contemporary Art and walk through the Beverly Reynolds Gallery I will look up and thank her for her dogged determination and guiding spirit for this important addition to our world.”
Artists who worked with Reynolds swore by her skills as a gallerist. They said that she had an impeccable eye, an unusual ability to penetrate a work of art and to speak about it with keen perception, and a strong but sympathetic manner with artists that proved inspiring. Seipel said, “She connected with artists at their core.”
Her standards were high, and Seipel said, “there was something special about being chosen to exhibit at her gallery. Every artist knew that if Bev wanted to exhibit your work, you had something.”
Sally Bowring, a professor in the Department of Painting and Printmaking, had a solo show that opened in the Reynolds Gallery in November 2013. Bowring said she remembered delivering her work to the gallery for the show with trepidation and anxiety. Reynolds called her the next day, guessing how Bowring was feeling and reassuring her with an emboldening talk about the quality of what Bowring had created. Bowring got off the phone with a new sense of confidence.
“The relationship between a gallery owner and her artists is one of the most difficult, significant and rewarding relationships one can have,” Bowring said. “Bev was the best. Being part of the Reynolds Gallery stable of artists was an extraordinary honor.”
Reynolds was intent on working not only with established artists at VCU, but with the students who were finding their way. Many VCU students had their first major showings at the Reynolds Gallery.
King said that Reynolds was a familiar face at both undergraduate and graduate student exhibitions on campus and at shows elsewhere in the city. Through that probing attention, Reynolds would select student artists to show their work in her gallery, including in a recurring show called “Almost Famous.”
Artists spoke with admiration of the energy Reynolds brought to everything she did. Her work ethic was leavened with a flair for fun.
“Bev had the most wonderful wild sense of humor and yet she was also deeply serious about engaging with challenging contemporary art,” said Kendall Buster, a professor of sculpture. “She was fearless in the way she lived her life and she will always be an inspiration to me.”
Her VCU admirers said Reynolds was a key figure in bringing together artists with the wider community. Seipel said Reynolds is responsible for untold connections forged between artists, dealers, collectors and others. King said Reynolds was simply everywhere you looked.
“She was at the very epicenter of the world of art in Richmond,” King said. “She moved in so many different spheres, and she was loved by so many different people. It’s an immeasurable loss for us.”
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