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Virginia Museum-Newly Transformed-is Poised to Extend International Reach
Landscaping has begun as construction continues on the VMFA expansion project. The sleek new addition will re-orient VMFA's main entrance to the Boulevard for the first time in decades. Photo by Travis Fullerton, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

RICHMOND, VA.- In a state capital best known for its historic landmarks, passersby will soon encounter three brightly lit floors of art and activity through the glass curtain-wall of the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The sleek new building re-orients VMFA’s main entrance to the street for the first time in decades as part of a $150 million expansion program, the largest in the institution’s 73-year history.

The McGlothlin Wing is the jewel in the crown of an extensive complex located in a 13˝- acre urban oasis Richmond. The master plan deftly knits together new elements – the McGlothlin Wing, the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden, the Parsons Entry Plaza, and a landscaped 600-car parking deck – with the original Georgian-style museum and other historic buildings. The Indiana-limestone wing provides elegant new galleries for permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, an art education center, conservation studios, a library, a museum shop, and restaurants, including one with magnificent vistas.

The result is a cohesive whole designed to stunning visual effect by the London-based Rick Mather Architects in partnership with one of Richmond’s leading architectural firms, SMBW. 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 – among them Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Wallace Collection, and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. His most recent project, a major new building for Europe’s first public museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford, opens in November.

These and other projects have confirmed Mather’s reputation as an architect who aligns his designs with a building’s context and history, in part by the virtuosic use of glass.

“With the McGlothlin Wing, Rick Mather gives us a thrilling, glamorous stage from which to present special exhibitions and display more of our global collection,” says Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s director. “Yet he has not only designed a spectacular new museum building; he has also made anew our original building, even restoring to use such beloved Beaux Arts elements as the 1936 marble Grand Staircase.”

The wing is named after its principal donors, native Virginians James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin. An exhibition of paintings and works on paper from the McGlothlin Collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art will inaugurate the new building, as will a showing of selections from a major new bequest of German Expressionist works from the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection.

VMFA, the first art museum in the nation to be chartered by a state, will unveil its new home and the complete reinstallation of its millennium-spanning collections May 1. The Grand Opening weekend will feature an array of celebratory public activities, from family programs to guided tours and illustrated talks. Sponsors of the Grand Opening are the Altria Group Inc., the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation and SunTrust.

“Capping a decade of planning, fundraising and building, the Grand Opening will usher us into a new era, positioning the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as the final, southernmost stop along the East Coast corridor of great encyclopedic museums,” Nyerges adds.

A City in Miniature
As visitors enter the three-story main entrance of the new wing, they will step into a soaring interior paved with granite and washed with natural light, with glimpses of the city to the left, gardens to the right, people traversing on bridges above, and works of art both far and near. Described by the architect as a “main street,” within “a city in miniature,” much like the human-scaled streets of Europe, the Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Atrium is at the heart of the new wing. The dramatic, three-story hub allows light to penetrate to the very center of the museum and connects the new building to the existing museum. The new Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library, museum shop and Best Café on the street level open onto the atrium, and all key circulation paths pass through it.

From the atrium, stairways and glass-walled elevators take visitors 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 aerial walkways span the atrium and connect the galleries in the new wing to those in the original building.

On the second floor of the new wing is the Worsham-Rockefeller Room, the posh 1880s boudoir of native Richmonder Arabella “Belle” Duval Yarrington Huntington. The period room, which was a recent gift from the Museum of the City of New York, will occupy pride of place in the new James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Galleries of American Art. Two glass-walled bridges connect these galleries and those for 21st-century art with newly transformed galleries in the original building that showcase the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection of mid to late 20th-century art. Still another bridge on the second level connects holdings of Pre-Columbian, Native American and American art on view in the wing with galleries presenting Greek and Roman art and Chinese art in the pre-existing museum. The East and South Asian Galleries are named for the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

On the third and top floor, the James W. and Georgina M. Rawles Galleries of Indian Art will feature a large, white-marble pavilion from Rajasthan, India – the only Mughal-inspired architectural space in an American museum – which will give visitors a taste of the splendor of palace complexes from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, amid other important works of South Asian art. The galleries share the top floor with conservation studios, now tripled in size to nearly 10,000 square feet of prime space washed by northern light, this expansion signals the institution’s commitment to its permanent collections. Also on the top floor are the Claiborne-Robertson Board Room and a restaurant. The restaurant’s balcony offers a birds-eye view of the sculpture garden, and the glass-enclosed bar overlooks the atrium’s aerial walkways and buzzing main street. Two walkways from the restaurant area lead to the world renowned Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco in the older wing.

The Cochrane Atrium’s connections to the street are even more dramatic. The 40-foot-high window to the east overlooks Richmond’s North Boulevard, signaling the purpose of the building by showcasing works of art and revealing public activity within. To the north, a glass-enclosed stairwell will be a landmark by day and a softly glowing beacon at night.

“The Cochrane Atrium and the Robins Sculpture Garden are key pivots for the McGlothlin Wing. In fact, I came to view the whole of the museum’s grounds as a garden and the McGlothlin Wing as a structure that would bring the outdoors inside – like the grand Mannerist residence outside of Rome, the Villa d’Este, which is beautiful during the day and magically lit at night,” says architect Mather. “The walls of the McGlothlin Wing define and engage the gardens as much as they form interior spaces. The Robins Sculpture Garden will bring life to the museum by day, while the museum will grace the garden with light and activity at night.”

“Our cosmopolitan new home is all about the museum’s relationship to the city,” says Nyerges. “By precisely calibrating light, scale and movement, Rick Mather encourages the kind of serendipity of experience we savor in the street life of cities. And he has done this while also fulfilling the complex curatorial and administrative needs of a major national museum”

VMFA’s charter and status as a state institution of higher learning drove the expansion of its campus and the design of the new wing. From the earliest planning stages, VMFA leadership envisioned the new building as a staging ground from which to raise the level of excellence in the arts in every classroom in Virginia. Says Nyerges, “That is a tall order, but with the new art education center – with its own entrance at the new plaza leading to a dedicated complex in the renovated 1936 building – we are on track to accomplishing it.”

The Collections
The vast array of world art on view at VMFA often surprises first-time visitors. In fact, the collection ranges over a 5,000-year period and is gathered from almost every corner of the earth. The museum holds one of the finest collections of African art in the nation (to be seen again with the grand opening of its permanent galleries in late 2010 or early 2011); major European paintings include works by Artemisia Gentileschi, Nicolas Poussin, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and others; the finest collection of French Art Nouveau and Art Deco design outside of Paris; and important collections of art from India, Nepal and Tibet, as well as ancient Mediterranean art.

Mrs. Richard S. Reynolds III, president of the VMFA board of trustees, says, “Since opening its doors in 1936, in the middle of the Depression, VMFA has benefited from a unique public-private partnership: The Commonwealth of Virginia underwrites a large portion of the museum’s operating costs, and friends in the private sector contribute funds and gifts of art.”

Generous private giving has made possible such notable holdings as the Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon collections of French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist art and British Sporting art; the Sydney and Frances Lewis collections of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modern and Contemporary Art; the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection of objects from the workshops of Peter Carl Fabergé; the Jerome and Rita Gans Collection of English Silver; and American art acquired through the J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund.

Architectural Selection Process
The need to better house and preserve these and other important collections led to a strategic planning process in the 1990s, which in turn led to plans for the expansion initiative. The search for an architect was launched in 2000 and concluded in 2001. Rick Mather was selected from among a field of five finalists that included Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, New York, N.Y.; Machado and Silvetti, Cambridge, Mass.; Polshek Partnership, New York, N.Y.; and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects, New York, N.Y. The late Paul Spencer Byard of Platt Byard Dovell White Architects served as advisor to the selection process.

For the VMFA expansion initiative, Mather incorporated with the Richmond-based firm SMBW as Rick Mather Architects + SMBW.

Planning Consultants for the project were M. Goodwin Associates Inc. and Randall Stout Architects Inc., Los Angeles.

The project was funded by a major capital campaign. The Commonwealth of Virginia provided $50 million, with the balance of $100 million coming from a $1-million federal grant and $99 million in gifts from private donors.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts | James W. | Frances G. McGlothlin Wing | Lora Robin |

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