Expansion at VMFA is Largest in Museum’s History

When the expanded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts re-opens to the public May 1, everything about the museum will be bigger, brighter and – with free admission – more welcoming.

“We’ll double our space for major traveling exhibitions and increase total space for our permanent collections and exhibitions to 134,000 square feet,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges. “Plus, major expanses of glass will allow natural light to pour into the heart of the museum and will also welcome visitors with a look at three floors of art and activity inside.

“With our new James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing, architect Rick Mather gives us a thrilling, glamorous stage from which to welcome visitors and to display more of our global collection and present important special exhibitions,” says Nyerges.

The expansion project is the largest in the museum’s history and re-orients VMFA’s main entrance to the Boulevard for the first time in decades.

The McGlothlin Wing is the primary feature in the museum’s redevelopment of its 13 1/2-acre site. The master plan knits together new elements – the McGlothlin Wing, the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden, the Mary Morton Parsons Entry Plaza, and a new landscaped parking deck – with the original Georgian-style museum and three other historic buildings on the museum’s grounds.

Indiana-limestone and glass cover the exterior of the wing, which will provide spacious new galleries for permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, an art education center, conservation studios, a library, a gift shop, and restaurants.

The expansion was designed by London-based Rick Mather Architects in partnership with a Richmond architectural firm, SMBW, which recently completed projects for additions to the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia (with WG Clark and Bill Sherman) and Luck Stone’s new corporate headquarters in Goochland.

The project is the first major U.S. commission for Mather, an American who has designed striking modern additions to a number of Great Britain’s most venerable cultural institutions. His most recent project, a new building for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, opened in November.

The new VMFA wing is named after its principal donors, native Virginians James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin. An exhibition of their promised collection of paintings, sculpture and works on paper from their preeminent American holdings will inaugurate the new building, as will a showing of selections from a recent major acquisition of German Expressionist works from the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection.

As visitors enter the three-story Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Atrium at the heart of the wing, they will step into a soaring interior washed with natural light and paved in dark granite. Described by the architect as a “main street” within “a city in miniature,” the dramatic space allows light to penetrate the interior of the museum, and it connects the new wing to the existing museum. The new Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library, gift shop, Best Café and galleries open onto the atrium, and all key circulation paths pass through it.

A large-scale commissioned painting by internationally known artist Ryan McGinness, who was born and raised in Virginia Beach, will hang in the entry concourse. The painting is his first museum commission, and its 200 colorful and densely layered images are based on works in the VMFA collection.

From the atrium, stairways and glass-walled elevators take visitors either below to the 12,000-square-foot special-exhibitions galleries and lecture hall or above to two levels of new permanent-collection galleries. Aloft, five glass-sided aerial walkways span the atrium and connect the galleries in the new wing to those in the existing building.

On the second floor of the new wing will be the McGlothlin Galleries of American Art. Two bridges connect these galleries to another devoted exclusively to 21st-century art. Two more bridges connect to the original building’s newly transformed Sydney and Frances Lewis galleries that showcase VMFA’s collection of mid to late 20th-century art. Still another bridge on the second level connects holdings in the new wing of Ancient American art, along with a collection of Native American art on loan from Robert and Nancy Nooter, to galleries in the existing museum presenting Greek and Roman art and Chinese art.

On the third floor, the James W. and Georgina M. Rawles Galleries of Indian Art will feature important works from South Asia. Also on the third floor are conservation studios – now more than doubled in size to nearly 10,000 square feet and washed by northern light – the Claiborne-Robertson Board Room, and a restaurant. The restaurant’s outdoor balcony offers a view of the sculpture garden. A glass-enclosed bar overlooks the atrium interior’s aerial walkways and main street as well as the sculpture garden.

Two walkways on the third floor lead to the previously existing museum and the world renowned Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco and the Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon collection of French painting and sculpture.

Two new period installations will add still more drama to the new wing. In the South Asian galleries, an elegant, white-marble pavilion from Rajasthan, India, will be on view. The 19th-century pavilion, with central fountain intact, measures approximately 14 by 27 feet and weighs 27 tons. It stands 9 1/2 feet tall. VMFA Director Alex Nyerges says the majestic structure will be the only Mughal-inspired architectural space in an American museum.

In the American galleries, the recently-acquired Worsham-Rockefeller Room will be on view. The bedroom is from the posh 1880s New York City home of native Richmonder Arabella Yarrington Worsham Huntington. (She later sold the house to John D. Rockefeller Sr., who left the interiors largely intact.) The Aesthetic-movement room was a gift from the Museum of the City of New York.

Nyerges says VMFA’s charter and its status as a state institution of higher learning drove the expansion of its campus and the design of the new wing. “We have also recently completed a comprehensive assessment of our services in dialogue with our statewide partners and are implementing enhancements to our statewide offerings for Virginians in their own communities.”