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Interior Finishing Touches Now Under Way at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Preliminary work has begun on the installation of an elegant, white-marble, 19th-century pavilion from Rajasthan, India. Photo: Travis Fullerton. ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

RICHMOND, VA.- With less than four months to go before the grand opening May 1, interior and exterior work on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts expansion -- the largest in its history -- is in high gear.

On the outside, sod and paving are being installed, and eight 20-foot lacebark elms have been planted on the new Mary Morton Parsons Entry Plaza. New landscaping is also under way in front of the existing building, simplifying the plantings and focusing on stately existing trees -- an American elm, a water oak and a sycamore. “The result enhances the visibility of the museum on the Boulevard,” says Richard Woodward, the museum’s senior deputy director for architecture and design.

The new wing re-orients VMFA’s main entrance to the Boulevard for the first time in decades as part of the $150 million expansion.

To the north of the new James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing, landscaping is under way on a portion of the 3 1/2-acre E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden that will cover the top of the museum’s new 600-car parking deck. The first truckloads of high-density foam have arrived. Foam blocks will form a lightweight base under the garden slope to reduce the load on the deck itself. Two feet of soil will cover the foam blocks, with deeper basins of soil where trees will be planted. (The process is much like that used in landscaping Virginia’s renovated Capitol Building two years ago.)

Inside, contractors are wrapping up drywall, flooring, painting and electrical work, among many other details. Also, work is nearing completion on the installation of an elegant, white-marble pavilion from Rajasthan, India, of the type that was a standard feature in royal gardens and palace complexes. The 19th-century pavilion, with central fountain intact, measures approximately 14 by 27 feet. It stands 9 1/2 feet tall.

VMFA Director Alex Nyerges says the majestic structure “will transform the presentation of our magnificent collections of Indian sculpture, miniature paintings and decorative arts in our new galleries. This will be the only Mughal-inspired architectural space in an American museum.”

Once the expanded museum reopens, those passing by on the Boulevard will be dazzled by the sight of three brightly lit floors of art and activity visible through the museum’s glass wall. 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 Robins Sculpture Garden, the Parsons Entry Plaza, and the landscaped parking deck -- with the original Georgian-style museum and three other historic buildings on the museum’s campus.

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 the London-based Rick Mather Architects in partnership with a Richmond architectural firm, 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. His most recent project, a major new building for Europe’s first public museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, opened in November.

“With the McGlothlin Wing, Rick Mather gives us a thrilling, glamorous stage from which to display more of our global collection and present important special exhibitions,” says Nyerges. “He has also renewed our original building, even restoring to use such beloved features as the original 1936 Grand Staircase.”

The wing is named after its principal donors, native Virginians James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin. An exhibition of paintings, sculpture and works on paper from the McGlothlin’s 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 main atrium of the new wing, they will step into a soaring interior washed with natural light and paved with dark granite. Described by the architect as a “main street” within “a city in miniature,” 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 the interior of the museum, and it connects the new building to the existing museum. The new Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library, gift shop, Best Café and several galleries on the street level 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 welcome visitors as they enter. The painting’s 200 colorful and densely layered images are based on works in the VMFA collection.

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 existing building.

On the second floor of the new wing will be the Worsham-Rockefeller Room, the posh 1880s New York City bedroom 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, which was a gift from the Museum of the City of New York, will be on view in the new James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Galleries of American Art. Two glass-sided 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 Pre-Columbian and American art, along with the Robert and Nancy Nooter Collection of Native American Art, to galleries in the existing museum presenting Greek and Roman art and Chinese art.

On the third and top floor, the James W. and Georgina M. Rawles Galleries of Indian Art will feature the white-marble pavilion from India, amid other important works of South Asian art. (The East- and South-Asian Galleries are named for the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.) Also on the top floor are conservation studios -- now tripled 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’s aerial walkways and main street as well as the garden.

Two walkways on the third level lead to 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 in the previously existing museum.

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. From the earliest 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, “We have also recently completed a comprehensive assessment of our services with our statewide partners and are implementing enhancements to our statewide offerings for Virginians in their own communities.”

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. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing | Alex Nyerges |

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