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Alex Nyerges, director of the VMFA, employs MBWA.
That's Management By Wandering Around.
Necessity made it so. Soon after he came to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2006, Nyerges was displaced from the office occupied by directors since 1936 and moved into a makeshift space with a fold-out table and chairs.
He'd also take weekly inspection tours of the new construction; this became a twice-a-day task and, finally, almost all day. To Nyerges, MBWA was the best way to captain the massive $204 million, phased-expansion project.
That, and one-on-ones with the people doing the work. Two years ago, he began holding meetings, at first every two weeks, then each week, to go down the list of what was getting done and what remained.
The project was in play when he and his wife, Kathryn, arrived about four years ago. Previously, Nyerges was director of the Dayton Art Institute, where during his 14 years, he and the staff grew the endowment from less than $8 million to more than $22 million, and membership increased from 2,500 households to more than 17,000.
As pressure mounted to get the museum readied for May 1, Nyerges also implemented lunchtime chats with each department. "And I mean really informal: takeout from Mom Siam's and plastic utensils," he says.
It was a way of taking time out to breathe and talk about what was happening.
To prevent himself from drowning in the details, Nyerges, an avid runner, took jogs and passed the Boulevard side of the massive James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing busy with workmen daily. Here, he could see, it's getting done.
The VMFA's addition of 165,000 square feet represents a 43 percent increase of its existing 380,000 square feet. That includes 53,000 square feet of new exhibition space, adding to its previous 80,000 square feet.
Before the expansion, the museum exhibited about 2,500 works of art in the galleries. After the expansion and installations, there'll be more than 5,000 objects on display. Many of these haven't been seen before.
The object for London-based architect Rick Mather was to make the museum as accessible as possible. Mather learned that the museum was called "Fortress Art" by some because its formal entrance was behind the main building. And he was gratified by good vistas to enjoy through huge walls of glass.
"What's great is that Richmond cherishes its important urban landscapes," Mather says. "The Boulevard and Monument Avenue are within view or nearby. So we wanted to contribute to what is already in place in terms of life and activity, not with a set piece, but symbolic of urban pride."
John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is from Nashville, Tenn., the home of Leslie Cheek Jr., one of the VMFA's most respected directors. During Cheek's 1948 to 1968 tenure, the museum built its national reputation. When space was an issue, Cheek implemented the Artmobile program, transporting the collection to the public. Cheek, known for his Cole Porter cosmopolitanism and dramatic sensibility, oversaw the development of the Virginia Museum Theatre, and added film, music and performances to the roster of the museum's offerings.
"He was an impresario and tastemaker and early client," Buchanan recalls. Buchanan has watched the Richmond collections grow and differentiate as new directors added their differing styles, from Cheek to Paul Perrot, (under whose watch the modern West Wing opened in 1985), Katharine Lee, Michael Brand and, now, Nyerges.
"Finally, this is a house that is deserving of the collection it serves," Buchanan says.
The expansion is noble architecture, but what is important now is how it is used. First impressions are key, of course, but the museum must appeal to visitors to return time and again.
"People who either grew up with it or people who didn't know it was there are essentially receiving a new museum," Buchanan says. "That building is compelling enough for the first-time visitor and an absolute asset for the city of Richmond unto itself. It'll provide a platform and opportunity to embrace new audiences and become, I think, quite a mecca."
Beginning in May, Nyerges explains, with a visible sense of practiced relief, the VMFA can resume its job: that of an arts museum serving its community and the larger cultural world.
"For some people, they've gone without this institution for four years," he says. "We'll be back doing what we're in business to do."