Artist wants money from city for damaged works, studio

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/15/2019, 6 a.m.
S. Ross Browne was painting in his South Side studio at 4 a.m. Nov. 1 when he heard an explosion ...
Richmond artist S. Ross Browne is frustrated with the city’s failure to pay for the damage caused to his South Side art studio by a busted fire hydrant. He poses in this 2013 photo after the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts purchased one of his works for its collection. File photo

S. Ross Browne was painting in his South Side studio at 4 a.m. Nov. 1 when he heard an explosion outside.

The hydrant in front of his studio at 1100 Hull St. had burst. Water was gushing down the sidewalk and street as if the James River has suddenly flooded South Side.

The gush of water then began flowing into the foundation of his building and started bubbling up through the concrete into his studio.

“Good thing I was up to start making calls. That water was enough to collapse the building,” said the award-winning artist who has won recognition for his figurative realism paintings that feature black people in Renaissance-style dress and armor.

Mr. Browne hustled to move his artwork and furniture to higher space, but could not keep the water from damaging 19 pieces that were sitting on the floor.

It took the Richmond Department of Public Utilities three hours to respond and turn off the water despite his repeated calls, he said.

Four months after the flood, Mr. Browne is still fighting the city to secure payment for $48,000 in damages he said he suffered.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I did nothing wrong, but my studio was shut down for two months. It took a company nine days just to dry the space out, running fans 24 hours a day.”

With help from a local foundation as well as the landlord, Mr. Browne reopened the studio in January after the water-damaged floors and walls were replaced.

During that time, he was forced to cancel programs that provide revenue. He also lost nine original ink on clayboard drawings that he had sold for $10,000 to a McDonald’s in Northern California, as well as 10 other works valued at $25,000, art supplies and a piece of furniture.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Utilities has not responded to a Free Press query about the situation.

To date, the city has refused to cover Mr. Browne’s losses despite its own internal report showing that the hydrant burst because it was improperly installed.

“How is that right or fair?” Mr. Browne asked. “The city caused the problem and now doesn’t want to pay for it.”

The city’s position is spelled out in a letter Mr. Browne received from the city’s insurer, AIG.

The Jan. 24 letter stated that PMA Management Corp., which serves as the city’s third party administrator for such claims, was denying Mr. Browne’s claim because “the city did not receive prior notice, reports or complaints” about the hydrant before it burst, removing the city’s liability.

PMA’s position is based on a city policy that the municipal government is not responsible if it is not notified in advance of a problem, though it is unclear how a citizen would know when a hydrant is ready to blow.

The company also is relying on city records that show the hydrant was never replaced and that the hydrant broke or burst for no reason, like an “act of God.”

Mr. Browne, however, said he watched a crew replace the hydrant in April 2018 after a car damaged it and drove away.

And when Mr. Browne searched for records, he discovered that the Utilities Department showed a hydrant was replaced, but listed its location as West 11th and Hull streets rather than East 11th and Hull streets, which is in front of his building.

A city report on the incident showed the replacement hydrant was not properly installed in April 2018. The crew that arrived to fix the problem on Nov. 1 reported that pipe connections from the hydrant to a tee pipe and to the city’s water main both were “not restrained” in violation of the city code, “so the hydrant had blown out at the (cutoff) valve.”

In other words, this was not an act of God, but faulty plumbing that the city approved and paid for, according to the report.

According to the report, the hydrant repairs took 16 hours to complete and required replacement of 260 square feet of sidewalk around the hydrant.

“If I have to, I’ll take it court,” Mr. Browne said. “But I’m just hoping the city will accept responsibility and do the right thing.”