The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ expansion five years ago raised its profile and broadened its audience, but the institution’s growth has come with some pain. We look at the impact of change on the VMFA, along with major developments at other Richmond museums. (Photo by Barry Fitzgerald)
Alex Nyerges, the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, remembers a phone call that he got from a VMFA trustee not long after it was announced last November that John Ravenal, the Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art, would be leaving the museum.
“Alex,” the man said, “what in the world are you doing up there?”
Ravenal’s departure is among a long series of exits of longtime VMFA staff — veterans including Sylvia Yount (chief curator and the Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane curator of American art), Robin Nicholson (deputy director for art and education) and Suzanne Hall (chief communications officer), as well as Bob Tarren, marketing and communications director, and Kathy Gillis, senior conservator of sculpture and decorative arts, among others.
People in the greater art world are noticing. “VMFA Poached for Another Top Job,” exclaimed a headline in ArtsJournal, a national blog roll of cultural scribes, when the museum announced Yount was leaving in June 2014.
Nyerges is sipping coffee on a Friday afternoon in perhaps the loveliest office in all of River City, a fourth-floor, glass-encased bird’s nest within the VMFA, overlooking the sculpture garden and an unparalleled city-side vista.
“I told [the trustee] that it was the best thing that could happen,” the director says, sitting in the sun. He explains: “Robin Nicholson left to become the director of the Frick in Pittsburgh, Sylvia left to become the head of the American wing at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], and John left to be the director of the deCordova in Lincoln, [Massachusetts]. Both John and Robin’s museums are in the top 10 of art museums in America; Sylvia got the best job in the American art world. So, yes, I understand the concern, the optic of people leaving is a problem. But the reality?” His eyes widen. “Holy mackerel!”
He remembers another phone call, from a colleague. “He said, ‘I have to congratulate you, Alex. You now have a trifecta of people who have departed for plum jobs. And it’s because of you. And he didn’t just mean me, he meant the museum.”
A More Inviting Space
Since its grand reopening in 2010, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has transformed itself into a world-class art institution, a vibrant public space and a highly poachable source of art expertise. At the helm is Nyerges, who arrived in 2006 after expansion details were largely finalized. His job was to front a freshly branded VMFA 2.0.
“Alex has been a really good person for opening the new building because he’s a real populist,” Ravenal says, calling from his new digs at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. “He’s very good with people and really likes to connect. Plus, his mantras of accessibility — welcoming, friendly, accessible — have been very good for the museum.”
The success of Nyerges’ approach, which includes the museum being open 365 days a year, can be seen in a new study generated by Chmura Economics & Analytics and commissioned by the VMFA. While the final figures were not available at press time, the study places the museum’s economic impact for fiscal year 2014 at $58.9 million in Richmond and more than $145 million in Virginia, as compared with 2008 figures of $34 million in Richmond and $59.5 million in Virginia. The study casts the 79-year-old cultural institution (which receives $10 million in taxpayer-funded operating support each year) as an important economic driver and a cultural lynchpin.
“Without the Virginia Museum, Richmond would be less of a city,” Nyerges says. Beyond bringing great art, the institution gives people “somewhere to go. We’ve lost the idea of the town square, the center of town. The Virginia Museum can be that place.”
And it goes beyond Richmond. “We have 16 partners across Virginia, and we’re doing exhibits with them all of the time. We’ve got an exhibit on Native American art that will soon go across the state, and an exhibit on African art is traveling as we speak. This is the kind of stuff we’re doing across the state every day.”
The VMFA’s $150 million renovation saw a repositioning of its entrance, a landscaped sculpture garden, a new 600-car parking deck and the addition of a three-story glass atrium that has become a symbol of openness and accessibility to an institution many once found stodgy and off-putting.
“Traditionally, we’ve been seen as a bastion for a certain segment of the population,” Nyerges says. “But we haven’t existed for the last five years by ignoring anybody.”
The expansion also added 50 percent more gallery space for the museum’s formidable collection. “Now, instead of having our great works in storage, they are out and on view,” says Richard Woodward, the museum’s curator of African art. He is a 40-year “lifer” at the museum and helped to oversee the expansion. “What we wanted to do is to create a more informal, inviting public space. We had kind of turned our back on the Boulevard.”
When Woodward arrived in 1975, the museum had one curator. “The pattern was to have a chief administrative curator, Pinkney Near, who was here for many years, and a series of advisors hired from other museums in specialized areas, Egyptian art or whatever.” It was a smart move back in the 1950s and ’60s when the museum was too small to afford a diverse curatorial staff.
“It was the vision of then-director Leslie Cheek to be global in scope, but how could he do that when he couldn’t hire a curatorial staff? So these advisors from other museums would steer acquisitions to us. And that was a very effective program for us. That’s how we built our pre-Columbian art, we had great Asian acquisitions and ancient art.”
In the late 1970s, an in-house curatorial staff began to assemble, and conservation work began on site. “Thirty years later, some of those early people have retired,” Woodward says. “And I’m kind of the last one.” He traces the origins of the VMFA’s expansion to the 1990s, when the museum was deeded 13 1/2 acres of neighboring land, and what is now the Pauley Center. This enabled it to grow and develop, rather than just be a tenant on state land, he says.
“In 1998, we engaged a space planning consultant to work with the staff and with the Board of Trustees and people from the community to talk about the museum,” Woodward says. “What did we need for collections? What did it aspire to for exhibitions, public services, café, parking, everything? And in 1999, we wrote a capital outlay request to the state and Gov. Jim Gilmore included seed money to start the project design in the 2000 budget. So that enabled us to then begin the architect search. We did our interviews for that later in 2000.”
This was the biggest project that the museum has ever taken on, Woodward says. It was three projects: a 600-space parking structure, a 4-acre sculpture garden, the 165,000-square-foot addition, plus 35,000 square feet of renovation to the existing building. “All in, design costs, construction, costs of moving the collection, was $150 million.”
Incoming director Michael Brand joined Woodward in hiring architect Rick Mather, who passed away three years after the expansion was completed. “Rick was an architect who thought about the personal experience that a person would have with the building,” Woodward says. “He had a real feel for how people would respond … as they go through the building. That was Rick by nature — he wanted his buildings to be loved and people to be comfortable.”
Even at a presenting cost of $5 million, the VMFA’s 2011 installation of a historic exhibit on Pablo Picasso from the Musée Picasso in Paris was a huge success, attracting more than 230,000 visitors. “I think it sent a real strong signal of the new ambitions for the museum,” says John Ravenal.
Before he left as head curator this past January, Ravenal had been with the museum for 16 1/2 years; among other things, he assembled its 21st-century art collection and was chief curator for its new sculpture garden (once a 250-car asphalt parking lot). “I came in June 1998. That’s a long run. I had been flirting with the idea of directing for many years and was a curator since the early 1980s, and so I got to a point in my career where it seemed like the right moment to take that next step [to become director of the deCordova] … or I wasn’t going to at all. It was a turning point, and my wife and I decided to go for it.”
Kathy Gillis was senior conservator of sculpture and decorative arts, an 18-year veteran, when she exited the VMFA last year to become head conservator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It was an easy choice professionally, as Gillis is from the Bay area — “this is a real advancement for me.” She cherishes her time with the museum, but describes the expansion five years ago almost like a difficult childhood.
“There were some growing pains,” she admits. “It’s such a drastic change. To go from a mid-sized museum to a large museum like that, there was an adjustment period. … I think there were a lot more entertainment events than we might have been prepared for. The electric bill was going to go up a million dollars a year, and being open seven days a week… it was a strain on existing staff.”
Anne Kenny-Urban, the former manager of budget services at the museum, left earlier this year to become director of Agecroft Hall. “I think that the Virginia Museum prepares people well,” she says. “With the variety of things going on and the different kinds of projects, and the experience you get there doing different things, people are well-positioned to get new jobs elsewhere.” Turnover, she says, is “the downside of such an exciting place.”
I ask Woodward if, in all his years at the museum, he had seen so many key workers leaving in such a short period? “No, I haven’t,” he says. “But I don’t see a pattern to people leaving, either. What we’re seeing is the museum placing major staff members nationally, which we really didn’t have a track record of doing in the past.”
The loss of longtime staff can present challenges. “You lose a certain amount of institutional knowledge,” says Bob Tarren, the museum’s former head of marketing, who left in March to start a consulting firm, Fractional CMO. “You lose things gleaned from experience, lessons well learned, understanding of the audience, understanding of the art, relationships with collectors, with media, all of those things. Those things can be replaced but not immediately.”
Signs of Discord
The VMFA economic study shows that the past five years have been transformative. Another report, an internal employee survey conducted last year by Pam Kiecker Royall, head of research at Royall and Co. (and wife of VMFA Board of Trustees President William A. Royall Jr.*, see below), would seem to chart the heavy cost of that success. And it may provide answers as to why there has been so much recent changeover — if we were allowed to see it. Despite two requests made by Richmond magazine under the Freedom of Information Act, the museum, a state agency, denied access to the employee survey. “The records in your request have been redacted and/or withheld because they are exempt from the production requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act,” writes Rebecca Morrison, assistant for trustee board relations and museum planning, adding that the records “contain personnel records concerning identifiable individuals.”
Staff both past and present acknowledge that the survey exists, and that it wasn’t entirely positive. “What we are talking about are communication breakdowns and some inefficiencies in the hierarchy,” Ravenal says of the study, “things getting too hierarchical … a few too many levels of communication. And I know — I don’t just think, I know — that there were frustrations based on convoluted communication and just lack of clarity.”
Kathy Gillis didn’t participate in the recent employee survey, but she can imagine the gripes. “How to put this? There are and were a lot of great ideas — exciting ideas, but there was hesitancy on the part of certain members of the administration to ever say no. They’d say, ‘Let’s do it.’ And then there would be opportunities for staff to explain why that might be a bad idea. Oftentimes, those caveats were not heeded. What’s that old saying about your eyes being too big for your stomach? Maybe the best way to put it is that we tried to do too much too soon.”
“The rank-and-file workers, with passion, few resources and little money in terms of pay, have accomplished incredible things,” says Tarren, when asked about employee morale. “People love their work at the VMFA. And they hate the fact that they have to work so hard for so little money.”
Salaries, Woodward says, have long been an issue, noting that the full-time staff did receive a 2 percent pay increase in the fiscal year 2016 budget (the first in seven years). The pay issue has come up before — he recalls that staff took a short furlough in the 1990s to avoid cutting jobs. “And it’s not the first time in the history of the museum that there have been issues of communication,” he adds.
“The survey has played a helpful role in helping us be a much bigger organization than we were,” he says. The total number of employees has ballooned from 179 full-time and 133 part-time in 2008 to 212 full-time and 408 part-time last year. “Things are more difficult now, because when I started in the 1970s, you basically saw everyone every day. Today, it’s so much bigger. There are more challenges to deal with. I think the survey was warranted and it’s good that the administration and the board are taking note of that, and we’ll see how it goes forward.”
“Sometimes change does have a ripple effect and gives other people ideas,” Ravenal says, “or just loosens things up and you get more changes. Institutions go through waves, and it can be time for new blood. When I came as a curator in 1998, there hadn’t been a new curator in 10 years. So I was a younger curator and that sort of started a wave of new curators coming in. It’s important to have change and new perspectives and new opportunities.”
At the same time, he says pointedly, there is a danger. “There are enormous pressures on museums to attract audiences and funders, just to maintain their operation. It’s a really delicate balance to find that line between attracting a broad audience and presenting substantial content. You can become overly narrow and overly scholarly and not necessarily appealing to a broad audience, or you can become a place that panders to a broad audience that delivers things that maybe please them but don’t challenge them.”
“At a big museum like this, you have to cover the spectrum.”
A Balancing Act
“When I first came, we didn’t do a lot of events,” says Cathy Turner, the head of VMFA food services and special events. “My job was really to pick up the phone and say, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ ”
Now, nearly 32 years later, Turner oversees more than 500 annual dinners, galas and corporate functions at the VMFA, mostly through facility rentals. “Like other museums, we see our mission in a broader way than we used to. Doing after-hours events, we see that as part of our mission.”
Nyerges has been a big supporter of the change, she says. “He sees events as a way to bring in new audiences, introduce new audiences. He has been a huge supporter of expanding the events.”
When talking about the last five years, Turner is another who alludes to “growing pains, because this growth has happened exponentially, almost overnight. … We have a much larger staff, but we’re also doing a lot more than we did before. When you go into an expansion like we did, some of it you anticipate and you plan for, but you can’t anticipate all of it, or the ramifications. There have been some times when we’ve really had to stretch … stretch budgets, all kinds of resources, personnel, everything.”
Kathy Gillis recalls that, in the heady days readying for the expansion, people were doing the jobs of two or three people. “You couldn’t find a more dedicated group of people than [those] at the Virginia Museum. They love the museum and love each other, really. So you’d pitch in to make things happen and then it was perceived, ‘Oh, you can do the job of two people, so we’ll continue to let you do the job of two people.’
“There was a real push to open the building, and we were happy to push to do that, but once the building opened, we were pushed to keep up the momentum. … There was no letting up. It was a very stressful situation, and I didn’t realize how stressful until after I left. Here [at the Asian Art Gallery], I don’t have to kill myself every day. I have enough staff to get the work done.”
Gillis also recalls occasional turf wars pitting art and commerce squarely against each other. “The increase in events was more than anticipated; [in] the atrium space, we had planned for artwork, and we ended up sacrificing most of it to events. Less art was put on view in places that were designed for that originally.”
The balancing act behind public space and art institution can be tricky, Ravenal says. And he worries about the diminishing role of the curator. Take the “Hollywood Costume” show that opened at the museum in 2013 as an example. “If something like that happens infrequently, as part of a larger portfolio of more substantial shows, that’s OK. But if that was the kind of show that were to define the exhibition program, I think the institution [would] be not really using one of its great resources, which is the curators.”
Is there a danger that, under Alex Nyerges, that will happen?
“I think he’s figuring that out,” Ravenal says. “But after a long run, you just have to recalibrate and recalculate.”
“Alex is a fabulous cheerleader,” Gillis says. “And he has great ideas. But there is a disconnect between [what] he’d like to do and what they are capable of doing. He wants to do everything. I think that’s where a different type of leadership might be more suited to what’s going on in the Virginia Museum.”
In the office, clouds roll in and, where once there was sunshine, there is now a torrential thunderstorm occurring outside the glass.
Nyerges pays it little mind. “One of the challenges we have as an art museum is that your concept and my concept of what is art is different. Our goal is to showcase everything, and with our encyclopedic collection, it’s easy to do that.”
An artist himself (his photography was exhibited this summer at Glavé Kocen Gallery), Nyerges says that some people couldn’t believe the VMFA was bringing in the work of Dale Chihuly, which it showcased in 2012 and 2013.
“ ‘You can’t say this is art’, they would tell me, until they came to see it. Same with ‘Hollywood Costume.’ I heard, ‘This is Hollywood. Why are you doing this?’ We did it because it’s beautiful design … and it touches upon film, our most prevalent art form.”
What about the museum employee survey? “We all internally have the same goal — we want to not only get the job done and do it well, but we want to be happy,” he says. “Work anywhere for seven years, a place you love, you’ve given your heart and soul to, and you don’t get a raise seven years in a row. It’s the reality of the economy and the world that we live in, but does it make people completely happy? No.”
He says that a new strategic plan developed for the museum by TDC of Boston addresses the survey’s findings. “We are going to add a deputy director in charge of human resources, volunteers and community service. To have an additional
division head at the table, whose sole responsibility is to make human resources run smoothly. This person will help with training, orientation … it will make a huge difference.”
He points out how, on TripAdvisor reviews, the VMFA staff is always described as being friendly and looking happy. “But I’d be lying if I said everyone was ecstatic. The key in the survey isn’t so much what the individual answers ended up being, because people have good days and bad days. You have to look at the overall consensus. The main thing is that you show progress, from the next one to the next one. And I’m looking to see dramatic progress on a number of levels in the way we all feel about working here.”
Walking downstairs after the interview, we see that, despite the rain, a young and bustling crowd, with some visitors wearing shorts (unheard of in the old days), is starting to gather for the weekly “Friday Art and Wine” event in and around the museum’s Best Café. Earlier, the director made it clear that profit wasn’t the total motivation of the new VMFA. Building an audience is.
“And we define audience in one word: everybody.”
*After initially agreeing to speak about the survey and the future of the museum, William Royall canceled an Aug. 18 interview that would have appeared online.