Nonprofit repurposes ad space as art space

Nick Bonadies
Spectrum Editor

Drivers heading northbound on I-95 may notice something sticking out from the usual noise, traffic, and fast food ads near Westwood Avenue next month.

For 28 days, from midnight on April 2 until April 29, the digital LED billboard there – near the parking lot at Diversity Thrift – will be taken over by the Billboard Art Project, broadcasting a steady rotation of artwork from local, national and international artists.

The project describes its installations as “little break(s) from everyday advertising, presenting larger-than-life art in glowing colors.”

The billboard is no stranger to acting as a public art gallery – in October of 2010, it was the Billboard Art Project’s very first venue.

Since then, the Richmond-based project has visited nine different cities, including New Orleans, Chicago and Nashville, and has also achieved national nonprofit status.

“Richmond has such a wonderful, thriving arts community,” said David Morrison, Billboard Art Project director, who funded the group’s first exhibits with his own personal savings.

Having returned to their own turf, he said, “we’re taking the opportunity to … try something new out.”

For starters, the exhibition in April will remain in rotation for 24 days – in the past, they have typically lasted for 24 hours. The exhibit will also include artwork from local elementary, middle and high schools for the first time, in addition to artists from VCU and Richmond.

On weekends, the Richmond exhibit will also feature a sound component, accessible by short-range radio or by Podcast, which Morrison described as “hearkening back to drive-in movie theaters.”

Morrison said that the project works on many different levels, allowing people to express themselves in a big way and giving passersby something to think about – and, for the many that he says will pull over for a longer viewing, something to talk about.

“It’s one of those things where, at first, it strikes people as being something completely random,” he said.

“You can have people drive throughout the city all day long, and they would not be able to tell you what ads they saw on billboards,” Morrison said. “We’ve set up these humanizing breaks from this kind of … void that we’ve come to accept as a norm.”

The Billboard Art Project plans to return to Richmond next year, after visiting such cities as Salem, Albany and Atlanta. That exhibit will encompass five different billboards around the city, three of which are already secured.

For more information on the Billboard Art Project, including a schedule and how to get involved, visit their website at billboardartproject.org.

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