Q&A with Jeffrey Allison, Lead Developer of VMFA on the Road

Jeffrey Allison is VMFA’s manager of Statewide Programs and Exhibitions and the museum’s Paul Mellon Collection educator. He is a professional photographer who holds a BA in photography and film from Virginia Intermont College and an MFA in photography from VCU. His illustrious career in fine arts includes educational and leadership roles at various Richmond-area institutions, including VMFA where he has served for twenty-one years. The lead developer of VMFA on the Road: An Artmobile for the 21st Century, Allison sat down for the following Q&A.

Jeffrey Allison standing proudly before paintings by Charles K. Sibley, Steven Fishman, and Julien Binford (front to back)

Q: Tell us about your involvement with VMFA on the Road and its predecessor, the Artmobile.

A: My involvement with the original Artmobile began when I was six years old and growing up in Saltville, Virginia. My aunt came to my house and said, “I want to take you to a museum.” I was surprised when we drove only fifteen minutes to the local school, and I saw a huge truck with “Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Artmobile” painted on the side. I was so lucky to see an exhibition of works from Paul Mellon’s private collection, many of which are now in VMFA’s permanent collection. It literally changed my life, and I don’t think I would be working in a museum today had it not been for that experience. It led to my attending a high school residency program here and then winning two VMFA Fellowships.

My involvement with VMFA on the Road has been a wonderful opportunity. I oversaw its development from the start and curated the first exhibition, How Far Can Creativity Take You: VMFA Fellowship Artists. The show includes works by VMFA Fellows—the very first Fellowship winner, Julien Binford, as well as internationally known artists such as Cy Twombly and Sally Mann.

I had the great opportunity to work with a design team from Riggs Ward to create an environment on board the truck that allows the visitor to experience the museum, view the exhibition, watch documentaries about the artists, create their own works of art, and interact with two onboard educators.

Visitors entering the mobile museum, a climate-controlled 53-foot Volvo trailer

Q: What does this project mean for the museum, which prides itself on collecting and preserving art for all Virginians?

A: Like its predecessor, VMFA on the Road takes works from the museum’s permanent collection to all corners of Virginia. Those who live more than five or six hours away may never have the opportunity to visit the museum in Richmond. VMFA on the Road will truly allow us to share artwork and educational programs with every Virginian.

Q: What have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of making VMFA on the Road a reality?

A: The most challenging aspect was creating a true mobile museum that safely transports and exhibits works of art in a stable environment. The same standards for heat, humidity, security, lighting, etc., that apply to a museum housed in a building also apply to this 80,000-pound tractor-trailer.

The most rewarding aspect has been working with a remarkably creative team of designers and all of the great VMFA staff who helped make this possible. Also rewarding is the chance to meet so many people around the state who remember the original artmobile and the impact it had on their lives just like it did on mine. Now that we are actually on the road, it is immensely gratifying to see people come on board the truck and enter a true museum. I love it when people actually gasp and say they can’t believe they are on board a truck. I’ve talked to people who have literally had tears in their eyes as they explain how much it means to have VMFA brought to them.

Q: How is it different from the artmobile that launched in 1953?

A: The original artmobile was amazing for its time. It was a mobile gallery filled with great works from VMFA’s collection, but as times changed, it could not maintain the essential levels of environmental controls. We had great educators on board as well as great programming in the four vehicles used until it ended in the 1990s.

VMFA on the Road is a true state-of-the-art mobile museum experience. The works of art are protected in sealed crates as they travel, and our educators are trained art handlers who install the artworks in the gallery once the tractor-trailer is parked at each location. We have also taken advantage of digital interactive components. From the outdoor screen and projector to the onboard distance-learning space, the artmobile allows for live interactions. For example, students in locations such as Big Stone Gap can interact with educators on-site at VMFA in Richmond.

Visitors experiencing the interactive components of VMFA on the Road

Q: What has been the response from visitors so far?

A: Visitors have been ecstatic. We have had over 25,000 visitors to VMFA on the Road already and everyone has been so excited. I’ve watched visitors–from children to seniors–create their own artworks using our digital screens. We have already done class tours for K-12 as well as colleges and universities. One visitor in Fredericksburg talked about how her own career as an artist began when she took classes from Julien Binford at what was then Mary Washington College.

Q: Where to next in the coming months?

A: We are scheduling VMFA on the Road residencies across the state from Norfolk and Suffolk to Bristol and Wise. We will be visiting all twenty-one Virginia planning districts multiple times with this first exhibition. We are also already working on plans for the next exhibition, which will premiere in 2020.

Q: Tell us about the current traveling exhibition. What one or two pieces stand out in your mind as must-see works of art?

A: Cy Twombly’s The Song of the Border Guard is a must-see. Cy used his first VMFA Fellowship to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There he became great friends with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. This was the very first print he made, and he collaborated with the poet Robert Duncan. Twombly is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and it is remarkable to see how his process is already maturing in this early work. Benjamin Wigfall’s Chimneys was until recently on display in VMFA’s American galleries. Wigfall was the first African American to win a Fellowship and one of the first to have a piece in our permanent collection. He became an internationally known painter.

Governor Ralph Northam congratulating Jeffrey Allison (left) and VMFA director Alex Nyerges (right) at the public launch in October 2018, Fredericksburg

Q: What would you tell someone in another part of the Commonwealth who has an opportunity to experience the museum through VMFA on the Road?

A: First of all, come out and take advantage of this great opportunity to experience your state museum when it visits your own backyard! One never knows where creativity can take you. I hope that everyone in the state will have the same opportunity that I did when I was a young child to see original works of art by major artists. It certainly changed my life, and I know this new version of the artmobile will offer new generations those same opportunities.

VMFA on the Road is coming to a town near you, Virginia