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Picasso fans John Smith and Sabrina Sparkles
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VMFA staffer Jessica Ferey, ready for action.
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Waiting in line for Picasso at the VMFA.
During the final hour of the last day of the Picasso exhibit, approximately 600 people ambled through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Sunday’s visitors included Sabrina Sparkles and John Smith, both of whom dressed for the occasion, with Squires in an outfit dominated by portraits of Dora Maar and Smith looking like, well, a Picasso.
“We’re sending Picasso out with a bang!” Sparkles laughed. The two Richmonders had seen the show before, but they chose to bid the massive once-in-a-lifetime exhibit farewell in person.
The museum tabulated that 229,796 people viewed the show, and through the last four days, 26,606 made the journey. Furtive procrastinators roamed the gleaming lobby, yammering on cell phones to various people, repeating the mantra of the day, “They’re sold out!”
VMFA staffer Jessica Ferey, wearing a Picassoian striped dress and fetching beret, positioned herself to guide people to the queue and answer questions.
“We’ve been sold out since mid-afternoon yesterday,” she told me. “But we’re seeing people with extra tickets give them away, which has really saved some people.”
Sunday's museum-goers weren't all procrastinators. Mechanicsville residents Eric and Tracy Surratt waited in line for the audio guide. Tracy explained that she plans things in advance and had purchased their tickets in April. This was the day. Eric is the four times great-grandson of Mary Surratt, hanged for her alleged role in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, and subject of the recent film The Conspirator.
“We were interviewed by Channel 6,” Eric noted.
“So now, everywhere you go,” I said, “the media shows up.” They chuckled.
And this was the third visit for Church Hill resident Jamie Menefee, who said he couldn’t get enough Picasso and that the show's impact on Richmond will be felt for some time. “People are naming their dogs Pablo,” he said. “Things are happening all over town as a result of this. It’s immense."
The cascade of visitors resembled the water feature in the new sculpture garden, flowing downstairs and collecting in the exhibit lobby.
Among them was Bill Reid, the entrepreneur who founded the NorVa music venue in Norfolk and co-owns The National. Marveling at the crowds, he mused about the financial impact of the show on the immediate neighborhoods and the city. He searched for comparables from his world. Unlike a Broadway truck show that comes to the Landmark and plays for a few nights, Picasso stayed for weeks and generated boffo box office. “This is like, say, Elton John played every night for two months, something like that,” Reid said. “What it must’ve done for the restaurants and other merchants around here is, I’m guessing, considerable.”
At the ticket desk, the attendant collected bottled water and other containers. “People walk up with all kinds of things,” she told me. “You wouldn't believe what they've got. Coffee, Coke cans.” She takes the plastic and aluminum home for recycling.
I experienced some mild claustrophobic moments as a guard noted on his microphone, “We’re packed pretty tight here in three.”
The commingling of colognes, perfume, body heat and sweat made this particular Picasso experience more sensual than perhaps was intended. This was most noticeable in the long gallery of lithographs and drawings, where one visitor griped, “People are just standing around chatting, they’re not looking at the art.” Another grumbled, “It’s impossible to see anything!” Viewing some of the smaller works, in that last hour anyway, challenged the barriers of personal space. Picasso, quoted on the wall: “No pleasure, without the taste of ashes.” Huge exhibits like this blend a wake, during which the departed is extolled and celebrated, and celebrity book signings, where people wait for hours to shake the famous hand.
Federico Venegas, a sophomore at Charlottesville High School, came with his dad, but the visit was Federico’s idea. He’d been in the exhibit for two hours, going back and forth, clearly enjoying the show. “I have a shelf of Picasso books at home. I love Picasso. To be able to see La Celestinaand these other works, in person, is indescribable.”
In the gallery where a series of Dora Maar portraits — the numbered "Head of a Woman" series — were lined up, people stopped, forming a bowing line, heads tilted intently, as though Maar was the day's guest speaker. And in a way, I suppose she was.
One beret-wearing gentleman was quite moved and excited by the work. He offered commentary to his companion — and anyone nearby. He gestured to the 1943 Head of a Bull, made out of a bicycle seat and handles, saying, “Speaks of his personal symbolism of the minotaur.”
Eventually, the warning beeps went off. The museum was closing and with it, Picasso, too. The exhibit leaves Richmond for the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Richmond was the second of three stops in the U.S., the other being Seattle.
A little after 5 p.m., Jessica Ferey let out a jubilant cry and tossed her beret in the air. She’d survived Picasso.
P.S. "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art In Ancient Nigeria" remains on view at the VMFA until May 21. It, too, is on a limited-city engagement, with Richmond one of just two East Coast cities to get it (the other being New York). Go there to see where Picasso got some of his better ideas, and introduce yourself to a different worldview.