Suddenly, blue and green lights blinking in an upper floor - pinpointing the spot for the Richmond museum's new restaurant and bar - catch Woodward's eye and make him smile. Even though it's early winter, the senior deputy director of architecture and design is thinking ahead to May and relishing the notion of a celebratory cocktail at the VMFA's reopening and debut of its 165,000-square-foot McGlothlin Wing.

More than a decade in the making, the VMFA's overall space has increased by nearly 50 percent and the number of artworks on view doubled, to about 5,000.

At a time when the economic downturn has forced many museums and arts organizations to slim down or curtail new projects, three East Coast art museums are unveiling architecturally inspiring renovated and expanded buildings this year. The VMFA, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh have all taken advantage of architectural advancements and the innovative play of light, shapes, and space to create inspiring environments that make museum-going more compelling. These projects bring the outside in, visually linking galleries to better tell a story, and utilize other fresh ways to deepen your connection with the art.

To make it happen, these museums recruited high-profile architects with audacious skills and the ability to shape concepts that wow.

Creating transparency in a new building while maintaining fidelity with an older, historical one takes finesse, one reason the VMFA leadership teamed with Rick Mather. "We hired the best architect for the job," says director Alex Nyerges, emphasizing how Mather seamlessly linked the historic older building with his modern addition to "make the spaces flow and work together." The skylight-capped atrium, for example, which opens into a new library, café, shop, and galleries, engagingly links two existing sections.

Both Richard Woodward and Nyerges praise Mather's use of glass and light to create openness and promote relaxation. This contrasts sharply with the older building's fortresslike quality.  Yet Mather has an uncanny ability to make such contrasts enrich the final work.

Not only has he created spacious interior vistas where patrons can glimpse from one gallery to another, he also has visually incorporated buildings that surround the museum. "One of Rick's real gifts is his placement of windows," Woodward says. He pauses in one gallery to peer out at a charming 19th-century farmhouse on the grounds. "He really thinks about the views outside his windows."

For his part, Mather hopes the enhanced museum, whose permanent collection is free to the public and therefore encourages people to come and go, will become a dynamic gathering spot. "I think the atrium space is going to come alive from all the different points," he says. "You want a building that's nice to be in."

Mather also expects that the large glass windows along the main boulevard, which showcase the art and people by day and glow softly at night, will provide a visual cue that will welcome patrons. He was determined to make that happen, even though doing so required incorporating unusually large materials: "The big window in front was a real challenge. They are big panels of glass. But no matter how difficult, I like everything to look like it was easy."

About the Architect
Rick Mather, American-born and a London resident since the 1960s, has won admiration for his expansions of such historical English buildings as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.