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Rally for the Right to Bear (& to scare with) Arms Prompted “Extensive Precautions” at Virginia MFA

I hadn’t wanted to write anything about this beforehand (for fear of putting a dangerous idea into someone’s head), but I was worried about the welfare of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) during the Jan. 20 gun-rights rally in Richmond. I was concerned that there might be a replay of what had happened in August 2017 in Charlottesville, VA—a white-nationalist rally that devolved into violent confrontations, claiming the life of counter–protester Heather Heyer.

Many articles written about the Richmond rally alluded to what happened in Charlottesville, but this time, thanks to restraint on all sides, effective security measures and good fortune, there were no reports of violence and only one arrest. That said, many local citizens (not to mention children) must have been aghast at the alarming sight of huge throngs of men in combat garb, openly brandishing large rifles in the streets of Virginia’s capital, which had been the capital of the Confederacy.

“This year, fear began to grow among government officials that the ranks of the activists would include people intent on violence,” wrote New Yorker staff writer Emily Witt in her first-hand account of the rally. “Online, people threatened violence.

Witt added:

The claim that it [the Richmond rally] was “safe” or “peaceful” was belied by the barely suppressed atmosphere of fear and the poses of intimidation taken by the armed and masked members of militias….“I was appalled by the individuals in the press who called it peaceful,” Michael Jones, a Richmond city councilman and a gun owner who supports the proposed laws [to restrict gun ownership], said. “My friends don’t walk towards my house brandishing weapons.”

The Charlottesville demonstration, which, (unlike the Richmond rally) erupted in violence, had been billed as a protest against that city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, making me fearful that “Rumors of War,” the Kehinde Wiley sculpture recently installed for permanent display at the VMFA’s entrance, might be a tempting target for the Richmond protesters.

Kehinde Wiley, “Rumors of War,” 2019, in Richmond
Photo: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Conceived as a response to the city’s Confederate statues, Wiley’s painted bronze depicts “a young African American figure dressed in urban streetwear,…in a striking pose based on the equestrian monument to Confederate States Army general James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart on Richmond’s Monument Avenue,” in the words of the VMFA’s press release.

Prior to moving to Richmond, it had been displayed in NYC’s Times Square:

Kehinde Wiley, “Rumors of War,” 2019. ©2019 Kehinde Wiley
Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with Virginia Museum of Fine Art & Sean Kelly, New York.
Photo by Kylie Corwin for Kehinde Wiley

On Jan. 20, the day of the Richmond rally, I emailed these questions about the situation to the VMFA’s affable, unflappable director, Alex Nyerges:

—What precautions, if any, has VMFA taken in light of today’s gun rallies?

—Are there any particular concerns (i.e., the Wiley statue?).

—Have there been any threats or indications that the museum could be targeted?

To which Alex cheerfully replied (not missing a chance to plug his museum and its current crowd-pleaser):

Everything is peaceful here. The crowds down at the Capitol have been the same. We took extensive precautions as can be imagined. We have great crowds today as we always on holidays (we are open 365, as you know, 366 this year since it’s leap year!). The Edward Hopper show [my link, not his] has been very popular.  

VMFA Director Alex Nyerges outside his museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What Alex didn’t mention is that VMFA’s general admission is free, although there’s a charge for special exhibitions, including Hopper, which has an interactive component—an exhibition space inspired by Hopper’s “Western Motel” (below), which serves as a functional hotel room where guests may stay overnight by reserving a Hopper Hotel Experience package.

Edward Hopper, “Western Motel,” 1957. Yale University Art Gallery

Does Yale get to keep the Western Motel guestroom when the painting that inspired it goes back to its New Haven lender after the show’s Feb. 23 close?

As for the controversial Confederate statues on Richmond’s palatial Monument Avenue (counterbalanced by a latecomer—Richmond native Arthur Ashe), advocates for their removal have not yet succeeded. The stately procession of generals on horseback (and on the wrong side of history) along this leafy thoroughfare is such a signature feature of Richmond’s cityscape that then VMFA curator John Ravenal (now executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA) made a point of driving me to eyeball this must-see tourist attraction when I was in town to write for the Wall Street Journal about the VMFA’s expansion.

I took these photos from the car, which is why one looks a bit off-kilter and the other has an extraneous reflection at its lower right:

Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Stonewall Jackson on Monument Avenue
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In a late-breaking development, consideration is now being given to a new statue on Monument Avenue—one that would “memorialize 14 Medal of Honor recipients from a U.S. Colored Troops regiment of the Union Army,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Fair enough, but no amount of memorialization or de-memorialization can erase past wrongs from memory, let along redress them.

Maybe these retrogressive symbols of idolatry can best be seen as reminders of how far we’ve come in race relations and of how far we’ve yet to go.

A Personal Note: Please forgive my being late in posting this. I was away visiting a must-see attraction in California: the birthday party for the younger of the two CultureGrandsons (who happens to share the VMFA’s director’s first name).

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