In 1985, philanthropists Sydney and Frances Lewis cleared out almost all of their Monument Avenue home's contents and donated it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The furniture, lamps, rugs, other decorative art, paintings and sculpture arrived all at once. It was the stuff of their daily life and has since become a symbol of the spirit they embody.
"Moving the collection was overwhelming in every way. . . . We emptied the house — EMPTIED — the house with the exception of the dining room table and a sideboard," says Lisa Hancock, chief registrar of the museum. Particularly difficult was moving extremely large, valuable pieces down a circular staircase in the foyer. However, despite the labor involved, "being a part of the transfer of the Lewis Collection to the museum has been one of the most exciting experiences in my career of several decades."
The Lewises were the founders of Best Products, a successful chain of catalog showroom stores. In the early 1960s, the couple became interested in two very different kinds of art. They first collected work by artists on the forefront of New York City's art scene — most famous, perhaps, was their friendship with Andy Warhol. Soon their friend Theodore Stamos, an Abstract Expressionist, introduced the Lewises to Art Nouveau decorative arts, and their interest then widened to include Arts and Crafts and Art Deco.
"We don't talk about the art itself," says Frances Lewis in the fall 2009 issue of myVMFA magazine. "Words are not the same [as] the things they describe. ... The impact of art — or the expression of art — is much more immediate."
The interweaving of the Lewises' two vastly different art collections in their home became an eclectic kind of interior design, and surprisingly, it worked. "It's what defines Sydney and Frances," says John Ravenal, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. "They put it all together, cheek by jowl — there's something very visually exciting about that … it was dynamic and unexpected."
Their house, a formal 1926 Georgian Revival designed by William Lawrence Bottomley, added another unpredictable stylistic twist to the Lewises' collection. "They really trusted their own judgment," says Ravenal, "and were fearless about it."
When Barry Shifman, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Decorative Arts from 1890 to the Present, thinks of the Lewises' exceptional taste in art and the magnitude of their generosity, he can be moved to tears. "I am so awed by [them]," he says. "In their field, they were the greatest collectors in the country.
"These were wise people who bought so deep and so well," Shifman says. Very few gaps exist in the collection of decorative arts they donated. The Lewises also provided funds (and advice) for the purchase of other pieces.
Of the French Art Nouveau collection, Shifman says, "We have things no one else does in America." The Cobweb Lamp designed by Clara Driscoll for the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company is "among the most important Tiffany lamps — perhaps the most important lamp in America," he says, and "ours is among the best executed of the [three or four] that are in existence in the world."
In the VMFA's newly renovated and expanded decorative arts galleries, deep, low platforms with wide panels near the floor for labels have been built to house the exhibits, and the process for making decisions about how the furniture in the collection should be arranged is similar to the way you might place furniture in your own house: First, one piece might be moved here, and upon reflection, that piece, Shifman might decide, really would be better over there.
Back in 1985, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts built a large west wing to house works donated by the Lewises and the Mellon family. Nonetheless, there still wasn't enough space to exhibit all of the best pieces the museum owned. Recent construction has expanded VMFA's exhibition space from 380,000 square feet to 545,000 total square feet.
In November, the transformed Sydney and Francis Lewis Galleries of Art Deco and Art Nouveau and their Galleries of Mid to Late 20th-Century Art will open for a members-only preview. And on May 1, 2010, the entire museum at last opens its new doors to the public.
As important and remarkable as the two very different collections of art the Lewises gave, however, were the large cash gifts the couple earmarked for further purchases. "They wanted us to buy in the way they did," says Ravenal. "They wanted us to buy adventurously."
Ultimately, the Lewises have bestowed upon the city in which they've lived something rare: a museum that "is as good or better than larger comprehensive museums" like the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ravenal says. "They were known internationally, and because of them, we are known internationally."