Photo by Beth Furgurson
Bill Chappell has a job that might surprise people: he’s in charge of the grounds at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 3.5 acres that are open to the public 365 days a year. Since joining the VMFA in summer 2014, Chappell has been a witness to the many ways visitors use the museum’s outdoor space: yoga, wedding and other special event photography, family picnics, dog-walking, meditation, even corporate meetings.
In addition to supervising the care and maintenance of the plantings in and around the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden, Chappell is charged with managing the landscape of the Robinson House, soon to undergo major changes as an addition and renovation transform it into a regional visitor center. He also maintains the grounds of the Confederate Memorial Chapel, the former R.E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Soldier’s Home.
Visit the VMFA’s gardens on Saturday, April 25 for “Paris in Springtime.” The event will feature jugglers, acrobats and easels in the sculpture garden so people can create their own art.
R•Home: What do you do for the VMFA?
Bill Chappell: The grounds are an integral part of the museum experience. We want to visually engage visitors in all areas, both indoor and out. The museum keeps evolving — there are permanent collections but changing exhibitions, too — and our spaces keep evolving as well. I’m responsible for making sure the exterior space is welcoming and functional, so it can be used by neighbors as well as out-of-town visitors, both day and night.
R•Home: Why does the VMFA need a horticulturist and landscape manager?
Chappell: Great museums periodically have great gardens. We want to do that. We’re really the largest green space in this part of the city, and we want to be a good neighbor as well as steward of the space. This is kind of its own ecosystem, with mature trees, open lawn, the terraced hill and garden covering the parking structure, and the Anne Cobb Gottwald Reflecting Pool, adjacent to the museum. We have a crane that comes to visit, two resident hawks [named for longtime friends of and donors to the museum Sydney and Frances Lewis], rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks. We want to be very organic, to use organic fertilizer, to water as little as possible, but to bring excitement horticulturally and really incorporate color in what we do.
R•Home: What brought you to the VMFA?
Chappell: I am a native Richmonder; my love for this museum is deep. I had my own landscape design business for 15 years and then worked at the University of Richmond. I came here to have the opportunity to work with very talented, hard-working people who have a collective goal of making this one of the best museums in the country … to have a hand in shaping the landscape into something more of a destination.
R•Home: What do you want visitors to know before they come?
Chappell: We are actively trying to polish our gardens and reinterpret the spaces. Thanks to a grant, we’ve been working with the nonprofit Project for Public Space — to make the sculpture garden more inviting and to engage visitors — and we’re on the Richmond Garden Trail. We love being a part of the community; my goal is to have the outside be as accessible and fulfilling as the inside space. My passion is to develop something that all can enjoy, where the cultivation and arrangement of plants offer a place of respite, a place to slow down and ponder all of God’s gifts for us. We really are trying to be everything for everyone.