Amy and Andy Dudas are, among many other things, the creators of the new Dudas Inspiration Venue for the Arts in Richmond’s downtown. It’s a place, yes, but it’s also a project that hopes to bring together all kinds of artists for collaboration, exhibition, performance and creativity.

I talked with Amy and Andy about why they invested in creating this space, what they’ve noticed about how other similar communities approach support for the arts, and what challenges and joys they’ve experienced as a part of life in Richmond’s central business district.

Transcript

The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.

Chris Hardie: Let’s start with the building. You have this massive, beautiful building downtown, which I should disclose I am a little bit biased in my positive opinion of because I was one of the former owners of the building. Tell us a little bit about what the building is to you, what you are doing with it and what you hope to do with it.

Amy Dudas: Sure. Well, Andy and I had been talking for quite sometime about investing in downtown and doing some things with it to include the operation of my law firm. We had started just kind of peeking into windows and such every time we were down here just to kind of see what was vacant and what types of opportunities were down here.

We finally contacted a realtor just to hey, let’s just kind of traipse through some of these kind of empty places and of course one of them on her list was this particular building and it just seemed perfect for all of the things that we wanted to do. Which included running my law firm in a space that was appropriate for that and then creating a non-profit arts venue that Andy and I had been discussing for quite some time. So, it just worked out really well and so far we’re just thrilled with it.

Chris: So, law firm and non-profit arts venue is not a combination you hear very often. Maybe, video rentals and tanning beds but not so much law firm and non-profit arts venue. So could you talk a little bit about what led to the creation of that and what made it a good fit for this space that you’re working with?

Amy: Well, Andy and I are both really heavily involved in the arts in Richmond already and so that’s kind of our avocational passion so to speak when we’re not focused on doing things that are income producing we like to spend our time doing artsy things so I play musical instruments and I play in the community orchestra. I play for Richmond Civic Theater Pit Productions. Andy is on stage quite a bit at Richmond Civic Theater. We both have directed, we’ve designed, we’ve done all kinds of things. So, taking the kind of passion that we have for the arts and then also the positive energy that we draw from each other it just made sense that we could create a space that would supplement and fill in a few gaps for things that we saw that were important. One of which was kind of the intimidation factor of people who want to make art but they are not, they don’t feel like they are good at it, or they don’t know anything about it, or they don’t have the right resources. So, that was kind of the idea of creating a space that would give anyone the opportunity to just kind of check out the arts and see if it was something they wanted to do.

Andy Dudas: I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is eliminate or soften the barriers that some creators and artists might have whereas someone has some sort, someone is compelled to create art in whatever facet or however the artist defines their art and what they want to create but they may not have the physical space to either create in or to perform in and so part of our goal was to not just make it, yes it’s a labor of love on our part, but it’s also part of our goal, I think, is to provide a space that is accessible to the arts community and then to the community and as consumers of the art.

Chris: So why is art important and maybe more specifically, why is art important to Richmond and the Richmond community right now, at this point and time? Help us understand where that fits into the big picture of community development and a thriving Richmond.

Amy: Sure, absolutely. Well, Richmond already has an incredibly strong arts community and I think for a town of its size it has an unusually strong arts community and it gets noticed from other communities and individuals with regard to how much there is here.

Obviously it creates a quality of life that makes people want to be here. It creates an economic incentive for people, not really an economic incentive but it creates a recreational incentive for folks in terms of if they are weighing one community against another and a variety of recreational options are available. So to have a community of this size with such a wide range of arts opportunities for its inhabitants is just amazing. And so to supplement that with what we’re doing just adds one more layer to that and just can help create a niche for Richmond as far as what is Richmond in the larger world community, national community, where Richmond might be a small town with a really big arts presence and I think that’s a great place for us to be.

Andy: And I think too that while it improves, like as a first step, it improves everyone’s quality of life whether recreational or vocationally but it also will speak to as future business interest are looking to relocate or start new entities anywhere in the country or anywhere within the state that the stronger the quality of life the better the surroundings for the community for the citizens. It just makes for a stronger, happier community which then in turn makes it appealing to businesses.

Chris: So if I’m someone who lives in Richmond and I’ve never performed in or maybe even gone to a Richmond Civic Theater production and I’ve never created anything or really been a part of any artistic endeavor, what am I going to find when I walk through the door at this space? What will be there for me?

Amy: Part of the whole point, the idea is that DIVA is a flexible and malleable space so people who use it can turn it into whatever they need to turn it into. I think that for the completely uninitiated, for somebody who has never done anything before it would not be as easy to just walk in and start something fresh because there’s not that experience there. Our hope is to create some workshops and some educational opportunities for people to kind of get something to try something.

Which we recently did. We had a storytelling workshop that was geared towards anybody that wanted to learn the art of storytelling and then give it a shot. So, that’s the kind of thing for the completely inexperienced artist on something new. But for somebody that … the example I always give is if you’ve always wanted to stage a production of Waiting for Godot you have the use of the space to bring in another actor, to put on this show, to ask people to come and watch it and that’s the space where you can just do that.

So that’s what it’s available for. Just the independent artist that wants to come in and produce something and make it available to other people.

Andy: Part of the process as we move forward is to acquire and obtain bits and pieces of items and equipment that can help in support of someone who wants to put on either a small one act play or possibly a small chamber concert or something like that. We are not yet in possession of small stage lighting fixtures. Or, our current space is not particularly in need of any sound equipment but as we’re in our current space which is technically an interim space we have a couple of small stage units that can be used. We have chairs that can be used.

We’re looking into a rail hanging system for art work to be displayed. But there will be an ongoing process of gathering and obtaining equipment that we will use internally for maybe one or two productions a year on our own. But there will also be that equipment to be used by the artists who want to use the space for their productions.

Chris: That sounds really great. I guess backing up a little bit I wanted to understand more about how each of you came to be in Richmond and why it is you’re investing and devoting so much time and energy to the downtown area and to an overall commitment to the community.

Andy: Well I’ve lived in Richmond virtually my entire life short of just a couple of months. I was born in Ohio a long, long time ago. And I grew up here, I graduated from Richmond High School and I’ve never had an extended period of time where I’ve lived outside of Richmond or outside of Wayne County technically. But it’s … my path now and I have nowhere to go with that. I’ve been here my whole life and I wasn’t really very aware of certain arts entities in town. I think I was probably almost 39 years old before I’d ever set foot into Richmond Civic Theater.

Chris: Wow.

Andy: My whole life and I’d never been there. And now I’ve been very involved with that group for the better part of 10, 11, 12 years and it’s become one of those things the more I became involved with civic theater and then as Amy and I, as our lives became our lives, we had found that we like the idea of what downtown is and wants to be. Whatever downtown wants to be, one way or another we’ve decided we want to be a part of it and I suppose a boring way of saying it is it’s the heart of downtown. Downtown is the heart of the city and we’d like to be a part of that.

Amy: I came to Richmond 28 years ago when I went to Earlham College and I just stayed. So, I chose to make this my home and I chose to stay here even through commuting to law school in Indianapolis and all that sort of thing. So, I’ve made a conscious decision to locate my life here. So, part of that means that I’m invested in Richmond and so a lot of what I do is done with the goal in mind of making the community I live in a better place. Obviously that benefits me because I want to live in a place that’s vibrant and that’s active and that’s artistic and so if I’m in a position to be a part of that then I want to. That’s why I engage in so many different kinds of things.

Chris: I think it’s clear that some people are worried about the downtown. I think there’s the rollercoaster of really great things happening and venues like your own opening and people investing in restaurants and retail spaces. And then there’s the other side which is business close and buildings sit empty and road construction makes people grumble a bit. What’s your take right now on the state of downtown, it’s prospects for the future, and if there is some sort of overarching theme of where its continued success and thriving is going to come from?

Amy: I think it’s a work in progress. I think there is a lot of potential downtown. These buildings are just amazing. There are so many great buildings. A lot of them have been allowed to lapse and go into disrepair, and that’s just something that we have to deal with, as a community, but I think there’s a good plan, and there are a lot of people in this community, who are committed to making it a place that is pleasant and thriving, and people are working really hard to make that happen.

I think that, yeah, it’s a little frustrating right now for a lot of people. There’s complaints about parking. There’s complaints about construction, and that’s … There’s complaints about stores closing. I think there are a variety of reasons of why stores close anywhere. I don’t think it’s all attributable to construction or parking issues. I think there’s a lot of things going on in the market economy that create a situation where stores close, but there are a whole lot of people that are committed to the idea of making downtown beautiful and accessible and a place where people want to be. I think that it’s moving in a good direction, but it’s just a work in progress, and there’s a lot that needs to be done. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of people committed to doing that.

Chris: There’s a particular concern that’s been expressed. I’m not sure how widespread it is. It may just be a few folks, but who have talked about … If you listen to them, it’s the scourge of not-for-profit organizations that are devastating the local tax rolls. I think that’s probably some hyperbole and not totally fair, but I think it’s worth pointing out that you all have purchased and have invested substantially in this building on your own, and that opening a not-for-profit in one of the spaces that the building has available, as I understand it, doesn’t have any detrimental effect to local tax rolls or otherwise. Is that right?

Amy: That is right. We purchased the property under the organization of Dudas Properties, LLC, which is a for-profit entity that owns this building. When we were in the midst of getting this closed and getting the purchase process started, I suppose, it was actually recommended to us, because we … At that time, we had the intention, and we may have already formed the nonprofit that is now currently housed in one of the spaces downstairs. It was recommended to us to use that as the purchasing agent for the whole building, in order to save the property taxes, which I think are around $4500 a year. We intentionally did not do that, because we felt like it was important for us to continue to contribute to the property tax rolls, which now we do double, because I still haven’t sold my other building, so we have that one, too.

Essentially what we have done is we actually took space that was being used by a paying tenant, and no longer have that income available to us, and we are donating the use of that space to the nonprofit and paying property taxes. At least, as far as this building is concerned, the nonprofit is not affecting property tax rolls. I believe that there is some misinformation, although I’m not prepared to openly state where that is, but I don’t think there are as many nonprofits downtown, not paying property taxes, as maybe some would believe. I think that that’s … I think you’re right. Part of that is hyperbole, and it may be a small section of folks that are concerned about that.

Chris: Do you think there’s a version of a thriving central business district that also has a mix of uses, not just retail and commercial operations, but also not-for-profits, art spaces, public spaces that don’t necessarily exist to generate income, but that exist for the broader good of the community?

Andy: Well, I think that downtown can be seen, maybe, as a nice cross-section of just, if not just life in general, at least maybe of the city, of the city itself; whereas, you have retail, you have professional, you have … There’s a church organization that’s not quite got their doors open yet, but are in the process of opening, so you have arts organizations, you have governmental agencies that are placed in and around downtown, and so-

Amy: Tech.

Andy: And exactly, you’ve got tech involved downtown, as well, that it seems, it almost … For us, we see ourselves as a part of the world, that we want to find our places in the world. It seems to me, or it seems to us, that there’s enough room in downtown for a little bit of everything, and I think it makes a nice … It makes a more integrated community. I think it makes for a better environment, and I think, just across the board, I think the variety, the diversity, I would rather say it, the diversity, I think, in downtown, I think is … I would see it as a strength.

Chris: My sense is both of you have done some travel, seen other parts of the world. Have you encountered spaces like this or, just in general, other communities that have an arts culture and arts venues that bring inspiration, when you think about what you want to do in Richmond?

Amy: The first one that comes to mind … Whenever we travel, we try to take the road less traveled, I suppose. Recently, we were traveling somewhere, and we ended up going through North Vernon, Indiana, which was … It had been a Stellar community, like Richmond is at this point, and their downtown looks great. We were commenting on that as we were down there, but then, as we spent more time down there, we realized that the buildings look great, but there’s not a whole lot in them, but I think that, again, North Vernon was on the endgame of their Stellar grant, in terms of at least the physical façade renovations and that sort of thing, and so they were still a work in progress, as well. We did see the results of that in North Vernon.

Andy: We were recently in Jeffersonville, and they … They’re right on the Ohio River. That’s a nice … I don’t want to say an easy attraction for people. It was an interesting thing to see. It was like Jeffersonville is right across the river from Louisville, and Louisville has just exploded into a nice, semi-cosmopolitan city in the Midwest, and Jeffersonville, a mile away, has not. It’s interesting. I don’t know if tax regulations differing from one state to the other play into that, but I think, as far as an isolated section of town, Mass Avenue in Indianapolis is a great example. It’s a larger city, of course, by exponentially than Richmond, but there is such a great variety of things happening all up and down that street.

There are a multitude of different varieties of restaurants. You’ve got many different professional offices. You’ve got all sorts of little kitschy boutiques and storefronts. You’ve got arts venues. It’s a wonderful … It’s a great place to spend some time. It’s kind of like … We’ve kind of got that opportunity right here in Richmond. I mean, I don’t think we’re light years away from it. There’s work to be done, but for a small town, I think Richmond has a unique opportunity, because of how strong the arts community and arts history has been.

Amy: Yeah, I think, to piggyback on the Jeffersonville experience we had. Their downtown looks fabulous, and there are just so many small touches of art down there that probably cost nothing or very little, in terms of just painting touches of art into the crosswalks, and public art, just a small sculpture on the corner, or a mural, which we have such a fabulous system of murals here in Richmond, but the downtown was super gorgeous and just neat to be in. Again, there was a variety. They had residential on upper floors, and they had nice retail and some good restaurants and outdoor dining, just a lot of neat things. It’s neat to be in a small downtown community, where you can see that they have succeeded.

Chris: You’ve obviously done the whole building ownership thing before, but I assume that being downtown has brought some new experiences, and I just want to ask, what has surprised you, if anything, along the way, as you have worked on the building, worked on building connections with neighbors, worked on opening the art space? What are some of the surprises and maybe challenges that have come up along the way?

Amy: Well, challenges, and probably as a former owner of this building, you probably know that every time you patch a leak, another one pops up.

Chris: Right.

Amy: There’s the challenges of owning a building that was built in, what?

Andy: 1878.

Amy: Yeah, 1878, so there’s that, but we knew coming in we would do that. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s certainly worth noting how welcoming and how strong the community is among the downtown retailers, business owners, those of us who are located down here. I’m certainly not talking about, and I don’t mean to be negative about, vacant building owners or noninhabitant building owners, but the folks, who are down here running businesses, occupying space, are incredibly welcoming and friendly and supportive. They support each other, and they’re very positive, and they’re all really working together for common goals. Like I said, that’s not surprising, but it’s worth noting. It’s just refreshing to be a part of a community that bands together for the entire community, rather than for just the individual.

Andy: I think part of the issue, or one of the issues that need some attention — let’s diplomatically say it like that — is parking in downtown Richmond. We have a big, giant parking garage that’s barely a 90-second walk from our front door. There’s a perception, and that’s where I don’t think it’s a valid perception, but it’s the perceived notion that the parking garage is unsafe or that there’s nefarious activities or individuals hanging around.

We have never had one instance. We’ve been downtown for the better part of nine months, I think, now, and we’ve never had one incident in the parking garage itself. The parking garage is safe. There are video cameras. The place is well-lit. They just recently reinstalled new LED lighting throughout the entire structure itself, but there is an issue with parking on the street whereas there are only two hour spaces anywhere right within the heart, within the meat, of downtown.

So, it’s something, I think, that needs to be addressed. I think there needs to be something differently. I think parking needs to be handled in a different situation, and there’s many different options that could be pursued, but right now if someone needs to park downtown for more than two hours, I don’t know where they’re supposed to go, and that by itself could possibly be a barrier for people wanting to relocate a business downtown or start one.

Chris: So it’s not just a matter of having enough two hour spaces, but you’re saying that someone, maybe a business owner or downtown worker, or are you thinking of someone who wants to go shopping or spend time downtown that they actually need the availability of spaces without a time limit at all?

Amy: Yeah, one thing that we’ve heard, especially. I mean, for retail, I can’t imagine, although I guess there are people that shop til they drop. I’m not one of them. To spend two or three hours downtown in a five block area shopping retail is probably not going to happen, but what we’re seeing is there are some professional businesses, there’s some technology services, and for me as a professional service, for example, of mediation in my office very rarely lasts less than two hours, and so when there are people I have maybe one or two other attorneys, a mediator, at least two other parties that are coming to my office for a probably four to six hour day. There is nowhere down here for them to park legally for that amount of time, and that’s a problem for those of us that operate businesses that require people to be around us for longer than two or three hours.

Andy: Now, that’s not to say that well, while the structure, how the parking is structured downtown … We feel that it does need adjusted in some way. There is parking downtown. There’s a difference between small town and big town mentality whereas if you drive to Indianapolis or Cincinnati and you’ve got a lot of stuff to be dealing with in the heart of downtown, you’re going to find the first parking garage you can find, and you’re happy to just walk wherever you need to go whereas in a smaller town, if you can’t see the building that you’re going into, people think that they then have to walk two miles to get to where they need to go.

There is parking down here, but how the parking is handled, there should be a conversation about that.

Chris: I think you’re right. There’s some perception issues there. There’s some real issues there. Parking downtown, obviously, has been a conversation that’s gone on for a long time, but hopefully current efforts can bring that to some sort of happy conclusion.

Amy: Sure.

Chris: Looking ahead, what’s next for the building, for you all, and for DIVA? What are you doing to make sure that this is going to be a space and an effort that thrives in the years to come?

Amy: So, what’s next for DIVA is really exciting for us. We have recently been awarded a grant from the Wayne County Foundation to create an improv troupe through DIVA. So, we have our workshop scheduled for this summer for our band of merry actors who are going to be a part of this improv troupe, and then we plan, hopefully by the fall, to be offering at least monthly at least to start if not twice monthly Friday night improv performances for the community. Now, there will be a small charge for those because we’re hoping to at least keep the lights on maybe with that, but it would be less than the cost of a movie ticket to come see local actors performing improv for an hour or so.

Amy: So, we plan to have two offerings for each performance, so we would have an early show that would be kid friendly where folks would be a little more careful about the language and topics they improv about, and then we would have a late show that would kind of be enter at your own risk. It would be a little more adult themed.

Amy: So, that’s the next big project for DIVA. We have received a couple of inquiries already from people that have projects in mind that they’d like to use the space for, so we’re in ongoing conversations with those folks, but I think that’s kind of our biggest one.

Andy: That’s what we’ve got coming up through the end of summer and early fall. Would you have larger plans eventually? There is a wonderful nearly 3,000 square foot ballroom that occupies the third floor of this building, but there is no elevator to access that space, so until we can figure out a way to make an elevator happen in this building, we will continue to be in the downstairs space so that it’s accessible to as many people as possible.

One of our cornerstone ideas behind DIVA was that it’s accessible to as many people as possible. While we have larger, grander, loftier … I’m going to run out of adjectives. To put us up in this larger space, we’ve committed ourselves to not moving into that space until it’s accessible to everyone.

So, that’s a long way off. That’s a good couple years down the road, at least, but in the meantime, the space that we have provides a nice intimate setting for a lot of different purposes.

Chris: I really appreciate that you’re thinking about accessibility and inclusivity in the design of the work you’re doing, making sure that a third floor space is accessible to someone who’s differently abled is maybe a really straightforward one even if it has a big price tag attached to it. But when you think about the work that’s done on sidewalks and crosswalks or building entrances or restrooms, it’s easy for someone who’s footing the bill for that kind of work to see it as just the cost, but I think it’s so important to think about how we can make sure that especially a downtown central business district and public spaces that go with that are accessible, and it’s neat to hear people thinking about that.

Coming back to the improv, and maybe this is a good place to end, I just also really appreciate that it seems the spirit of the work you’re doing and the pursuit of creative expression has this kind of infusion of the improvisational and the unexpected and maybe even the disruptive when it comes to what people typically expect from art and the arts community. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about just sort of how this space differs in your mind or how you want it to differ from other kinds of arts experiences that people might have and maybe saying more about how improv is a good symbol of that.

Amy: Sure. Well, DIVA really wants to stress its existence as art for art’s sake, so the art produced at DIVA is not designed to get butts into seats. Like my previous example, if you want to stage a production of Waiting for Godot, and you have one person in the audience, that’s fine. It’s all about the experience of creating art rather than doing it for someone else. You’re doing the art for yourself. I think one really unique comparison I heard once between the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, which is of course a professional orchestra, and the Richmond Community Orchestra, which is more of an avocational orchestra with all volunteers, is that the Richmond Community Orchestra is essentially creating a music for the musicians for the experience of being in an orchestral setting and creating that art as opposed to for the symphony, obviously, that’s for the musicians as well, but their primary purpose is to offer a concert for an audience.

So, the point of DIVA is not how big can your audience be; it is the experience and the individual benefit everyone gets from creating art within themselves, so I think that’s what makes DIVA so different from anything else that’s out there. It’s about the experience.

Andy: I think, Chris, you make a great point by drawing a comparison between the nature of an improv performance and what DIVA really is. I’m a little disappointed that neither of us figured that comparison out. That it’s an anything goes, anything can happen, and one of the things specifically about improv is that typically people are going to associate that with comedy and humor. We don’t envision … That’s not the only path that our improv group is going to take. There will be those times where it may take a serious or a dramatic turn just because of the nature of it’s all unscripted, and you don’t know where it’s going to go.

Chris: Maybe to draw the improv comparison out even a little further. I mean, I’ve done some improv training just at the amateur level, and I know one of the principles is that when you’re responding to one of your fellow improv actors, you never say, “No…” or, “That’s not right.” You always say, “Yes, and…” and so I hear you all in the face of all the many challenges and possible bumps in the road in building this space and investing in downtown. I hear you both saying, “Yes, and…” in the face of those instead of “no,” so it’s really cool to see, and a lot of thanks and appreciation, I think, is owed to you for making that investment and overcoming those obstacles, and I’m excited, and I know lots of folks are excited to see what comes of it.

Amy and Andy Dudas, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me and for reflecting a little bit on the work you’re doing, and I wish you good things ahead.

Amy: Thank you so much, Chris.

Andy: Thank you very much.