'I could just cry, I'm so excited!" gushed a members-preview visitor who came upon American art curator Sylvia Yount at the newly installed, extravagantly opulent Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom, an irresistible crowd magnet in the new McGlothlin Wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
As I toured the galleries with the VMFA's ebullient director, Alex Nyerges, and his house-proud curators, it was clear that the 165,000-square-foot expansion, designed by the American-born, London-based architect Rick Mather, had deftly accomplished its purpose-providing art-friendly spaces for the museum's large and growing collections and temporary exhibitions, while simplifying the complexities of navigating the museum's original 1936 building, three successive additions and the new wing. The expansion provides 50% more gallery space for the permanent collection and twice as much space for major special exhibitions.
Considering the importance and allure of its diverse collections of some 22,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of international art history, the VMFA has been undeservedly under the radar of the nation's art devotees. It is perhaps best known by non-Virginians not as a travel destination but as a steppingstone for museum directors on their way to more prominent institutions-Katharine Lee Reid to the Cleveland Museum of Art; Michael Brand to the J. Paul Getty Museum. (Both have since left those posts.)
The VMFA's brightest stars are a permanent constellation that includes five Fabergé Imperial eggs (said to be the largest such public collection outside of Russia), a bevy of Tiffany lamps, and philanthropist Paul Mellon's distinguished collections of British sporting art and French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The museum's eclectic holdings include one of this country's consummate collections of Indian and Himalayan art, an outstanding assortment of French art nouveau furniture, and a superb treasury of English silver that will soon shine even brighter with a gift of 50 English silver objects from the museum's longtime collector/patron Rita Gans.
All will be arrayed to best advantage thanks to the successfully concluded $200 million capital campaign, leading to the recent opening of the museum's skillfully articulated new wing, named for Virginians James and Frances McGlothlin, who gave $10 million and bequeathed and additional $20 million toward the project, as well as their collection of American art, some of which is now on temporary display for the opening.
"We ended up with a perfect museum space," boasted Mr. Nyerges. "It complements, rather than overwhelms." Coming late to a project conceived by Mr. Brand, his predecessor, Mr. Nyerges has for three years seen it to fruition.
Mr. Nyerges is now counting on the increased space for major loan shows (for which visitors will pay a fee) to help raise his museum's national profile and to rev up "the engines that drive the train of revenue" for this free-admission institution, which gets one-third of its operating budget from the state.
"Tiffany: Color and Light," which opened Saturday, is billed as "the most important exhibition of the work of . . . Louis Comfort Tiffany in a generation." Opening next year is "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria," organized by the Museum for African Art, New York. A new relationship with the Palace Museum in Beijing is expected to bring a major Chinese loan exhibition in 2016.
"People will come to Richmond to see the best art in the world," Mr. Nyerges exulted.
Architecture buffs will come to savor Mr. Mather's substantial accomplishment. The VMFA's new limestone-and-glass home for a portion of the permanent collection, two eateries, a museum shop, library, education facilities, conservation lab, offices and special-exhibition galleries is the first significant project in this country by a respected architect who, like the VMFA, is somewhat under the radar, at least in his native country. Mr. Mather's recent expansion of the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford was just named to the shortlist for Britain's most lucrative arts award, the Art Fund Prize valued at £100,000 ($145,442).
The genius of Mr. Mather's design is its enhancement of the visitor experience through ease of circulation and navigation, interrupted by ample opportunities to take a break and refresh the eyes in lounges and on an outdoor deck overlooking a reflecting pool.
Visual cues for where to go and how to get there are intuitive and attractive, anchored by the sculpture-friendly, three-story atrium, whose straight lines are softened over part of its football-field length by unexpected curves above that are echoed at ground level by the S-shaped window through which passers-by can view the 143,500-volume library-which is open and available to all.
The most impressive feature of the atrium is its effortless handling of a large influx of visitors. The expanse is traversed horizontally on two levels by four glass-walled bridges (with two more bridges over the entrance hall), and vertically by four elevators, three of which are glass-walled. Leading diagonally upward are two easy-on-the-feet carpeted steel stairways.
Once in the galleries, you are impelled onward by sightlines that extend across the breadth of the museum, anchored by "axial objects"-powerful pieces strategically positioned along the linear thoroughfares, beckoning you into the next room. The museum's "wow" spaces are created not by flashy architecture but by exceptional collections, enticingly installed: a large, dramatically lit group of stone sculptures from India lining the deep terracotta-hued walls of one new gallery; the glistening roomful of ornately embellished English silver; and the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom, where no amount of red floral silk-damask, gold and silver leaf, and opalescent, multicolored glass stones is deemed too over-the-top. Recently given to the VMFA by the Museum of the City of New York, the 1880s boudoir originally occupied the midtown New York abode of Arabella Worsham, a Richmond native who rose from poverty to become known as the wealthiest woman in America. In 1884, she sold her New York townhouse to John D. Rockefeller Sr.
The expansion also provided room for the museum's first galleries devoted to 21st-century art. An array of works by American and foreign artists of the moment, some purchased ahead of the curve by modern and contemporary art curator John Ravenal, now update the museum's late-20th-century collection, largely donated by celebrated local collectors Frances Lewis and her late husband, Sydney.
The VMFA's expansion is still a work-in-progress: More sculptures will be installed in the atrium, which opened with pieces by Sol LeWitt and Barry Flanagan. The galleries for East Asian and ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art are scheduled to open late this year; galleries for African and late-19th- to early-20th-century European art will have their debut in 2011. Also unfinished at the time of the opening was an expansive outdoor sculpture garden.
When it's finally all done, the VMFA may well be tempted to change its slogan from "It's your art, Virginia" to "It's your art, America."