The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Andrea Kirsh runs down to Richmond to check out the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and touch base with its Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education, Michael Taylor. We at Artblog remember Michael fondly when he was Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the PMA! It looks as if he's brought some of his Philly love to the VMFA with acquisitions of works by Tristin Lowe and Daniel Heyman! Andrea reports.

The many Philadelphians who miss Michael Taylor’s presence at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be happy to hear of his enthusiasm in his position as Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, (VMFA) the state museum. He graciously gave my husband and me an extensive museum tour on the evening before we visited the exhibition of Chinese Terracotta warriors which had brought us to Richmond. We passed a wonderfully-humorous, English painting of a floppy-eared dog playing the piano, one among Paul Mellon’s many donations of otherwise-proper British sporting art and French Impressionist paintings. I’d heard of the Mellon gifts, but the generosity and breadth of Richmond’s other patrons was a wonderful surprise.

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Michael Taylor, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art & Education. (Photo by Travis Fullerton © VMFA)

VFMA’s special areas and traveling exhibits

The museum does not aspire to a universal collection, but concentrates on specific areas, supplemented by traveling exhibitions. Still, it covers a broad swath and installs the works handsomely. We saw the splendid collection of post-WWII American art assembled by Sydney and Frances Lewis, who also donated extraordinary Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture and decorative arts which are a major strength of the museum. There are holdings of fine English silver and the largest collection of Russian decorative art in the U.S., including five Fabergé eggs commissioned by the Czar as gifts for his own family; each opens to reveal detailed, miniature objects of gold and precious stones. In addition to European and American decorative and fine art the museum has collections of Classical, African, Native American, South Asian and East Asian art.

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“The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Cinchin’,” 2012, Trenton Doyle Hancock (American, born 1974), acrylic and mixed media on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Sydney and Francis Lewis Endowment Fund and Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr., Fund for 21st Century Art, with additional funds contributed by Mary and Don Shockey, Jr. and Marion Boulton Stroud. (Photo by Travis Fullerton © VMFA)

Philadelphia in the VFMA collection

Michael brought his knowledge of the strength of Philadelphia artists to Richmond. He proudly showed off “In Our Own Words; Native Impressions,” a series of color woodcuts by Daniel Heyman and Lucy Ganje – exhibited as a companion to an exhibition of work by Native American artists living in North Dakota. The print series grew out of interviews with members of North Dakota’s four remaining Native American nations, and as with Heyman’s series on Iraqui survivors of torture at Abu Graib it incorporated extensive text by each of the individuals depicted. Michael didn’t need to point out Tristin Lowe’s “Comet: God Particle” (2011), which soared above the stairs leading from the lobby to the main galleries.

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“Comet: God Particle,” 2011, Tristin Lowe (American, born 1966), glass, neon, aluminum. Virignia Museum of Fine Arts; Gift of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. (Photo by Travis Fullerton © VMFA)

Regional museum collects many works by artists of color and charges no admission fee

The VMFA is a deeply impressive regional museum with a high-quality collection; it is also attuned to its own community and, being a state museum, charges no admission fee. Michael showed us a group of Ethiopian religious art, including the largest Ethiopian painting I’ve seen, and mentioned that members of Richmond’s Ethiopian community were working with the museum to translate texts. The collection of contemporary work by artist’s of color is more substantial than I have seen in any U.S. museum besides the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the 20th century American collection reflects a national rather than a regional outlook, including major artists from Chicago and the West Coast as well as artists fashionable in New York. The earlier 20th century American collection also reflects the stylistic diversity of the period, including, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Eldzier Cortor (a Richmond native), Phillip Evergood, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Archibald Motley and Marguerite Zorach as well as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe.

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Fabergé firm (Russian). Imperial Rock Crystal Easter Egg, 19th century. Rock-crystal, gold, emerald, diamonds, enamel, watercolor on ivory, 10 x 4 in. (25.40 x 10.16 cm.) Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. (Photo: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts).

Richmond, a great walking city with much history

We clearly hadn’t allotted enough time in Richmond, and were already planning another trip by the day after we arrived. The city is a pleasure to visit and suitable for visitors who don’t want to drive – a rarity in the U.S. It has large, intact neighborhoods of early 19th century housing and attractively re-purposed commercial properties in the city center. Richmond has preserved its river frontage for public trails with bridges to recreation areas. And it takes its history seriously, presenting its various Confederate sites and monuments while acknowledging the institution of slavery which undergirded the Southern cause. A number of sites record the contributions of Richmond’s black population and literature from Richmond Regional Tourism includes an entire section devoted to sites of African American heritage, including a slave trail which I am anxious to walk on a return visit. It is also a city for foodies, proud of its very high concentration of restaurants and many craft breweries. And Southerners truly are welcoming.