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More on the Virginia MFA: Last-Minute Frenzy, First-Rate Displays

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Alex Nyerges, director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

“There are two things that I need by the opening,” Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, impatiently told the contractors whose work on outdoor amenities, related to the museum’s Rick Mather-designed expansion, wasn’t proceeding fast enough to suit him. “I need blue [the reflecting pool] and I need green [the grass].”

Those two things he did get, but (as I noted in my Wall Street Journal article and my CultureGrrl Video, there was still lots of work to be completed both on the outside and within the expanded and reinstalled museum, where, ready or not, an eager crowd gathered at the entrance for the members’ opening.

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While they waited outside, I was already inside, perusing those parts of the collection that had been installed and observing the staff’s intense efforts to get more of it up in time for the preview and public opening. One big delay in the construction project came when a vast expanse of glass, touted by Nyerges as “the largest unsupported glass wall in North America,” turned out to be not only unsupported but also insupportable: It cracked upon installation—a $500,000 mishap, not charged to the museum, according to Nyerges.

Six months later, a replacement arrived from Austria, along with a design fix from the architect and engineers. Here’s the finished product, in the background behind modern and contemporary art curator John Ravenal:

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John Ravenal on a bridge in the atrium, overlooking Sol LeWitt’s colorful “Splotch #22″ and the Best Café (on the right)

As I toured the galleries with the director, we came upon Roy Thompson, the museum’s lead art handler, hanging the pictures as fast as he could:

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This 42-year veteran of the VFMA’s staff was still at it the next day:

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By the time I left Virginia, the day before the public opening, many objects hadn’t been installed in time for me to see them. I particularly regretted missing the very rare original wax models for Degas‘ celebrated sculptures of ballet dancers and horses, given to the museum by philanthropist Paul Mellon.

All I got to see of them was this…

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…and this:

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Heather Logue, a conservation technician, was still putting the finishing touches on the opulent Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom, the “crowd magnet” that I described in my recent WSJ article:

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As soon as visitors were admitted, they gathered to ogle this early-1880s agglomeration of international influences that originally occupied a midtown New York townhouse. The bedroom—the VMFA’s only period room—was recently given to the Richmond museum by the Museum of the City of New York, which no longer could accommodate it after a recent renovation. The dressing room from the same townhouse was recently transferred to the Metropolitan Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum has the Moorish smoking room.

“To experience the Aesthetic Movement, you almost have to enter a room like this,” observed Sylvia Yount, the VMFA’s American art curator, who is an expert on that movement and its eclectic embellishments..

Here’s a partial view of bedroom, which, despite its New York origins, has a local connection: Arabella Worsham, its first inhabitant, was a native of Richmond who grew up poor but married well.

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Here is a better look at the hand-painted ceiling cloth and the opalescent, multicolored glass stones in the monumental brass chandelier:

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Below is Yount in the American art galleries, newly housed in the museum’s McGlothlin Wing. Paintings, sculpture and decorative arts commingle there. But as is also true at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum, the platforms for the furniture frustratingly preclude getting a close look at many of the paintings:

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The McGlothlin Collection of American art, which will come to the museum by bequest (but which is now on temporary display in the new subterranean special exhibition galleries), is a mixed bag. Yount agreed with me that the collection (which also comes with a $30-million gift—$10 million already received; $20 million by bequest) is somewhat quirky, with a number of fine works, but also quite a few that are not typical of the artists’ most celebrated output. Yount maintained, though, that this eccentric character, partly a function of what was available on the market, also helps to round out what the museum already owns. 

Take, for example, this very loosely painted Sargent, which Yount described to me as “probably the most abstract painting he ever did”:

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John Singer Sargent, “Gathering Blossoms, Valdemosa,” 1908, collection of James and Frances McGlothlin

Here’s a work by the same artist, much more familiar in style and subject, that’s already owned by the VMFA:

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“Mrs. Albert Vickers,” 1884

Moving on to the VMFA’s other galleries, here’s one of the “wow” spaces that I mentioned in my article—a roomful of stone sculptures from India, dramatically installed:

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And here’s Mitchell Merling, the head of the VMFA’s European department (both fine and decorative arts), with one of the highlights from the dazzling and extensive English silver collection—an intricately embellished 1693-94 “Ginger Jar,” with scenes from ancient Roman history, by silversmith Anthony Nelme:

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Merling also escorted me into the storeroom, to uncover some examples from the just announced additional gift of 50 English silver objects from the museum’s longtime collector/patron,
Rita Gans
.

Here, from that gift, is a Rococo cup by Kandler:

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From the new 21st-century gallery, here’s one of Ravenal’s “ahead of the curve” purchases—a work by Julie Mehretu, acquired when she was gaining recognition, but before her canvases became too pricey for the VMFA:

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Julie Mehretu, “Stadia III,” 2004

But now let’s return to those beleaguered construction workers, who starred in my irreverent CultureGrrl Video of the feverish work in progress at the VMFA. Hours after I shot that clip, the work was still very much in progress, even into the dark of night:

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Wait a minute! I haven’t shown you much about the new wing’s architecture yet…COMING SOON.

an ArtsJournal blog