Preparing for the Future
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is undergoing the most comprehensive renovation and expansion in its 73-year history. When the addition is completed, it will allow the museum to display more of its renowned permanent collections, re-invigorate its exhibition program, and accommodate increasing numbers of visitors. The expanded VMFA will not only benefit the museum’s regional audiences, but also strengthen its cultural profile and educational potential nationally and internationally.
This transformation offers an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the overall shape, display and interpretation of the museum’s holdings. The expansion’s grand opening May 1, 2010, will show off gallery space increased by 50 percent. The new wing is named for native Virginians James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin who, in 2005, promised to bequeath their substantial collection of American art to VMFA. Accordingly, the largest amount of permanent-collection gallery space in the new wing – approximately 11,200 square feet – will be devoted to the exhibition of VMFA’s present American collection, more than doubling its previous footprint. For the first time in the museum’s history, the full breadth and depth of the American holdings will be available to the public. Moreover, a first-ever scholarly examination of selected paintings, sculptures, works on paper and decorative arts will be published around the time of the expansion opening.
Situated in one of the original 13 colonies, one of the nation’s oldest states, VMFA’s American art collection represents four centuries of cultural exchange and development. The surrounding region is home to important historical sites, architecture, and collections – from Fredericksburg, Charlottesville and Jamestown to Williamsburg, Norfolk and the nation’s capital. VMFA’s long-term commitment to showcasing and interpreting the visual arts in ways that parallel, preserve and enliven the history of this area will be greatly enhanced with the advent of the new wing.
Overview of the Collection
VMFA’s American collection has grown in size and quality since 1990, when then-director Paul Perrot wrote about the museum’s early collecting goals in a special issue of The Magazine Antiques: “While a collection of world art was created, the American collections were somewhat neglected. They are going to be among the museum’s highest priorities in the years ahead.” The critical development of the holdings in subsequent years, due to remarkable patronage and curatorial talent, has established VMFA as an important center for the study of American visual culture, one that has gained increasing prominence on a national stage. James and Frances McGlothlin’s major capital gift and art bequest in 2005 was widely heralded. Moreover, the J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund, The Elisabeth Shelton Gottwald Fund, The Floyd D. and Anne C. Gottwald Fund, The Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Fund, and The Julia Louise Reynolds Fund continue to support significant acquisitions, symposia and publications.
At this crucial moment of transition in the museum’s history, American art has become an even greater institutional priority. VMFA’s commitment to the burgeoning collection is manifest in several ways – from the placement of the galleries in a pivotal location of the new wing (where it will provide a physical and historical continuum with the Modern and Contemporary art holdings for the first time) to the planning of new educational components, future exhibitions and publications.
History of the Collection
The Commonwealth of Virginia’s collecting of American art predates the official founding of the museum. In 1919, Judge John Barton Payne, a prominent Virginian who held high offices in law and national politics, donated his entire collection of 50 paintings to the commonwealth. His gift of art was later transferred to the fledgling VMFA when it opened its doors in 1936. The Payne gift included several examples of American art, including portraits by George P. A. Healey, Richard Norris Brooke’s “Pocahontas,” and a marble bust of Benjamin Franklin by Hiram Powers. In its opening decades, the museum’s initial purchases emphasized then-contemporary American painting. A few of these early acquisitions, such as “Little Giant Still Life” by Stuart Davis and “House at Dusk” by Edward Hopper, both acquired in the 1950s, have achieved international significance and fame. With the American Bicentennial in 1976 came a renewed interest in earlier American art and a greater emphasis upon 18th- and 19th-century decorative arts, particularly furniture, as well as 19th-century painting.
The past two decades ushered in the most intensive and productive period of development for the American art department. The 1988 establishment of the J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art enabled the museum to target major examples of primarily American painting with dedicated funding. Since 1990, the Cochranes’ generous support has underwritten the acquisition of some 18 oils, four works on paper and three sculptures by leading American artists including Thomas Hart Benton, William Merritt Chase, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Robert Henri, Paul Manship, Charles Sprague Pearce, William Wetmore Story, Henry Ossawa Tanner, John Trumble, Edwin Lord Weeks, Benjamin West and James McNeill Whistler. This wide-ranging collection of objects dates from the colonial era to the late 1920s and encompasses the major genres of American art – from the founding tradition of portraiture and the first “national” style of landscape painting to a diversity of still life and figure painting.
In American decorative arts, the department has focused on important individual works that represent significant historical and stylistic trends. For example, the Cochrane Fund has supported the purchase of an important 18th-century Rococo tassel-back side chair, a striking late 19th-century Louis Comfort Tiffany tri-fold screen, an early 19th-century monumental porcelain urn by the Tucker Factories and, most recently, a rare Minton tile fireplace surround painted by Edwin Austin Abbey.
Under the current leadership of Dr. Sylvia Yount, VMFA’s Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, working closely with associate curator Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary and assistant curator of American decorative art Dr. Susan Jensen Rawles, the department’s collecting parameters range from the late-17th to the mid-20th century. Its holdings number approximately 1,900 objects – from painting, sculpture and works on paper to the decorative arts of furniture, silver, glass and ceramics. In addition, the museum’s world-renowned Lewis Collection of Decorative Art (with its substantial Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts holdings by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Gustav Stickley, among others) and the Paul Mellon Collection (with its choice examples of sporting subjects by Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, and rare suites of George Catlin’s North and South American paintings) further strengthen the representation of American art at our institution. Key selections from these two freestanding collections will be featured in the newly conceived installation of American art in the McGlothlin Wing.
With an eye to the new galleries, the curators continue to strengthen the collection with strategic acquisitions of major works as well as objects that will add necessary texture and dimension to the American installation – for example, a rare genre painting by the so-called father of American art, Benjamin West; furniture by the leading 19th-century African American craftsman Thomas Day; a ceramic work by the Southwestern potter Maria Martinez; and a precisionist cityscape by the little-known Japanese-American artist Bumpei Usui. VMFA’s acquisition funds for American art rank among the top in the country and ensure a healthy future of departmental collecting, based on a solid foundation.