But our jaws drop when we spot the vertical motion of the sleek, glass elevator at the far end of the atrium. Inside the crystalline cab and sitting alone in profile is an older, wheelchair-bound woman. She's wearing a shocking pink dress, a bubble-gum-pink hat and pink sneakers - everything pink. We hone in: Is she real or a piece of conceptual or performance art, perhaps a recently purchased Duane Hanson sculpture? She's motionless while the elevator glides upward, and we're transfixed. But when she maneuvers her pinkness from the elevator and onto the third floor, we nod to each other and move on. In this instance, life does imitate art.
Visually, VMFA's new atrium is the most visually exciting space on a campus where every square foot is tweaked to be observed, contemplated and enjoyed on some aesthetic level. The atrium behaves like a tiny Italian hill town where random flights of steps, passages and multiple recesses converge and from which people appear and disappear. Galleries, shops and other activities are offered on various levels. All is welcoming and comfortable.
Richmond's leisure-time venues apparently arrive in pairs, Noah's Arklike. Short Pump Town Center and Stony Point Fashion Park opened in summer 2003. In mid-2009, downtown performing arts venue CenterStage opened within a year of a concert hall, the National. And one evening this spring locals could either brave the crowded preview of the breathlessly awaited museum expansion or roll up the Boulevard for the new Richmond Flying Squirrels home opener.
Say what? Does one dare utter the Virginia Museum, the unchallenged temple of high culture, in the same breath as Nutzy the Flying Squirrel?
Alex Nyerges, the museum's egalitarian director, probably won't mind the association. He, like the head of any franchise, is all about attracting people. And the people are responding since the opening of the McGlothlin Wing three months ago. Since then, thousands of visitors have flocked to and sometimes marveled at, the dramatically enlarged museum, which has added 165,000 square feet to the 380,000 square feet it had already. The continuing, open-armed marketing mantra is, "It's your art."
In 2001, before Nyerges' arrival four years later, Rick Mather Architects, based in London, was engaged to reimagine the institution's 13.5-acre campus and design the fifth expansion in the museum's 75-year history (SMBW Architects of Richmond served as associate firm).
First job, site clearance: The museum's north wing, a relentlessly red-brick, modernist fortress, and its adjacent sculpture garden (the latter designed by the late, noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin) were unceremoniously obliterated. A number of towering oaks that shaded the parklike grounds also were ripped out.
In their stead, a sprawling, pavilion-like structure has emerged, simultaneously startling and beautiful in its modernity. In contrast to the taut, English Renaissance Revival 1936 museum building (designed by Peebles and Ferguson) and its masonry additions, the McGlothlin Wing is a breath of fresh air.
Crisp-edged, exterior expanses of cut-stone cladding set off large windows of clear and frosted glass. And if the new wing is essentially an oblong box, the cantilevered canopies that announce the two main entrances soften the mass. On the roof, unexpected pipes and tubing sprout and twist out like tentacles, adding a frisky touch to their real assignment, which is ventilating the art conservation studio.
All this prompts an erudite, local observer of architecture to huff that the wing looks like an airplane hangar. He misses the point. Sure, it's large-scaled and employs an unapologetically industrial aesthetic, but an airplane hanger isn't so handsome and deceptively playful at the same time. And a hanger isn't so brilliantly unified with, and celebratory of, its environment. The McGlothlin Wing is generous architecturally in that it not only performs its complex job of providing a sympathetic and environmentally responsible place for storing and viewing art, but also set off nearby landmarks. The museum's Robinson House and its classically elegant Pauley Center, Benedictine High School and even the residential buildings on the Boulevard become key players in a broader architectural dance.
And universally, if every building interacts with its environment in one of four ways - either merging into the landscape; enfronting it like a stage set; surrounding it (like the lawn at the University of Virginia); or claiming the space - the McGlothlin Wing claims it - big time. Although the wing is set back from the Boulevard a respectful distance in deference to the older structure, it commands attention from many other directions because of its unabashed modernity and studied informality.
The contemporary landscaping scheme synchronizes expanses of lawn, a variety of dark gray stone paving materials including Mexican river stones, a complex water feature that's still being installed, and a myriad of plantings. These landscaping elements wrap around three sides of the structure to fuse the building with its strikingly more open setting.
And if a major modernist architectural tenet is both to embrace nature and express a building's function, this wing delivers the goods. Inside, with windows at strategic turns, it's impossible to move more than a few yards without catching a glimpse or vista of the exterior grounds and neighborhood.
Viewed from outside, the windows visually animate the building, especially at night. From the Boulevard and sidewalk, a huge, 40-foot-high window creates a proscenium for three back-lighted Tiffany stained glass windows that once adorned the former All Saints Episcopal Church downtown. Barry Flanagan's "Large Leaping Hare," a 1982 sculpture popular with many museum-goers, bounds across an upper-level landing.
Expectations are high. What are we discovering?
Approaching the McGlothlin Wing
Happily, the museum's original front door on the Boulevard is open again, but the McGlothlin Wing was designed to be the principal entrance, so the new energy center is on the museum's north side.
On a recent sultry weekday at opening, dozens of patrons approach from various directions. They stroll up, down or across two spidery concrete ramps with metal mesh railings that link the museum with the new 600-space parking garage (partially buried and accessible from either the Boulevard or Sheppard Street). Other visitors cross the sleek, wooden bridge linking the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden in the center of the museum block with the entrance plaza. One pedestrian ambles up from Boulevard. A school bus swings past a recently planted grove of beech trees in the plaza and discharges a swarm of children.
There's a town-square energy to it all, or like something from a grand musical production when actors appear from all directions at once. Considering the heat, few people tarry on the benches or large, granite seating blocks, instead heading for the glass doors and cool comfort inside.
Visitors enter the McGlothlin Wing through a relatively long and narrow passageway, a shortened version of an airport concourse. The first impression is a blast of fresh, white plastered walls, appropriate for a starkly modernist building. A few columns of rubbed, raw concrete add a touch of modernist elegance.
To the right of the entrance is a discreet passage leading to restrooms. Continuing along the concourse are three successive counters: security, parcel-check and the reception, information and ticket desk. On the left side is the sizable and well stocked museum store.
Those who look up in this passage will see a large, multipaneled acrylic painting with frenetic energy and explosive colors. It's Ryan McGinness' "Art History Is Not Linear (VMFA)." The bravura work was commissioned for this space and includes 200 iconic representations of works in the collection. Unfortunately, the work hangs too high for satisfactory examination. Perhaps it's meant to be seen from the second-floor bridges, but from that vantage point the visibility proves equally difficult.
The concourse spills into the exhilarating, three-story atrium that runs the length of the McGlothlin Wing and is crisscrossed with four bridges that link the existing and newly opened galleries.
A brilliant and playful stalactite of a floor sculpture, "Splotch #22," by Sol LeWitt, demands immediate attention at the atrium's south end. But your eye moves from this fiberglass piece to the huge window overlooking the Robins sculpture garden. Visible beyond the reflecting pool is an installation of handsome, totemlike ceramic pieces by contemporary Japanese-American artist Jun Kaneko. The Pauley Center beyond that, housed in the former Home for Needy Confederate Women, anchors this vista to Richmond's past.
While I make a mental note to visit the sculpture garden I recognize a recurring theme: The McGlothlin Wing is one tease after another. You may be standing in one spot when something else intriguing beckons from across a bridge or through a glass wall. It's not always clear how you'll get there, but unquestionably, the building is a flirt.
When I turn back toward the atrium I notice strange, clunky, red signs announcing the Best Café. Tempting, but I push along. Walking across the black, high-sheen stone floor and passing under bridges I enter the dramatic atrium. On the left is a long, undulating wall that pulls my gaze upward. Across the ceiling, skylights are sliced by a series of finlike strips that create a sculptural louvered effect. The daylight in this space is glorious and on sunny days these slits create a shifting shadow play.
A second entrance to the museum store is off the atrium. And adjacent, a curved glass wall reveals the museum's library reading room.
On the atrium's right side wall, at the second level, is a broad window. This will offer a peek (another tease) of ancient art being installed. Below this window is a first-floor exhibition space, Focus Gallery One, designed for an intimate experience with smaller works.
At each end of the atrium, in addition to the bridges, the vast volume is punctured by three stolid, battleship-gray steel staircases that are embedded into side walls. These connect the ground floor to the bridges above. Gray carpeting and glass railings soften their industrial hardness.
Fleeting Visual Pleasures on the Lower Level
From the atrium you can peer down into a large, cut-through opening that connects clearly the atrium with the major changing exhibitions area one level down. Three current exhibitions include "Tiffany," American art from the McGlothlin Collection and recently acquired German expressionist art from the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer collection.
There are a number of things to like about this lower-level space. The lobby area is large enough to handle exhibition introductions and orientation. Most importantly, the ceilings are high, so there's no sense you're in the basement. And the floor space was envisioned to handle large, international shows or be subdivided for multiple exhibitions. In an excellent piece of traffic engineering, the lobby at the far end of the special exhibitions area serves an adjacent lecture hall or a staircase leading back up to the atrium.
The lower level also connects smoothly with the Leslie Cheek Theater and its contiguous lobby and conference areas. The fully equipped auditorium is named for a longtime museum director, whose shadow still looms large, and who is credited, in the 1950s and '60s, with molding the future direction of the museum.
The American, Pre-Columbian, Native American and 21st-Century Galleries
Ascending a gray stairway to the atrium bridge overlooking Boulevard, I enter the succession of American galleries whose holdings are chronologically arranged from colonial to modern.
Strangely, the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century galleries have been retrofitted with classical crown moldings and baseboards. It's peculiar that the museum would hire an internationally significant modernist architectural firm known for handling art museum transformations, and then tamper with its interiors. The Rick Mather contemporary interiors are corrupted with this faux historicist detailing.
Still, the American galleries are knockouts aesthetically and emotionally. The placement of the objects allows excellent pacing and the curators have created a striking visual narrative where through painting, sculpture, furniture and decorative objects, the sweep of the American experience is portrayed. Old favorites such as Charles Wilson Peale's double portrait, "William Smith and his Grandson" and a 1795 painted blanket chest from Pennsylvania are back, and many of the more recent acquisitions are hits. William Wetmore Story's marble "Cleopatra" (1858-65) all but comes to life, and Thomas Hart Benton's "Brideship (Colonial Brides)" (1927-28), is witty and mesmerizing.
It's also reassuring to see Virginians' work displayed, including work by Gari Melchers (whose painting studio is open near Frederickburg and whose wife, Corrine, was a museum founder) and Edward Valentine (whose sculpture studio is the Valentine Richmond History Center downtown).
On the far side of the American galleries are the Pre-Columbian Galleries, which easily could be overlooked. The museum's holdings are currently augmented with pieces of Native American art from collectors Robert and Nancy Nooter. Under fairly dim lighting and with deep khaki- or maize-hued walls, this elongated gallery, with earth-toned objects, is a quieter, contemplative antidote to the American gallery nearby.
Leaving these galleries I cross a bridge Al Gore could appreciate: to the 21st-century galleries. On the bridge, but through a glass wall, I'm on eye level with the commissioned, colorful Ryan McGinness piece. It's difficult to see on an extreme angle and with considerable glare.
In the 21st-century spaces the wooden floors of the American galleries give way to surfaces of polished concrete. Among the works here is "Wave" by another Virginia artist, Richmond painter Heide Trepanier.
On to Asia
Elevators and stairways lead to the third-floor galleries in the McGlothlin Wing. Here, the museum's East Asian galleries offer eye-popping and comprehensive art including Indian, Tibetan and Chinese works. This museum experience would be difficult to duplicate elsewhere in this country. With its rusty red walls, low lighting and works densely packed with meaning, these galleries offer the sublime experience in the museum. The pieces require extra concentration. Whether viewing a "Seated Buddha," ceremonial cloth showing a royal wedding, or a page from the Fraser Album depicting an Indian genre scene, you can be transported to another world.
That these galleries are removed from heavier trafficked areas causes me to drift into a lower-keyed mental zone. Interestingly, however, on a half-dozen trips to this area, my informal census found it to be well-populated.
Across the hall from the South Asian Gallery, also on the third floor, is the museum's handsome new restaurant and bar, Amuse, which stretches across the western side of the wing. Its glass wall leads to a dining balcony. With its thick carpet and furnishings from classic, mid-century modern furniture designers - side chairs and bar stools by Harry Bertoria and Womb chairs by Eero Saarinen - the place is sumptuous. But then, architect Mather did get his start with clean-cut London restaurants.
Revisiting the West Wing and Original Museum
After lunch I ascend one of the steel staircases and wander back into the Lewis Mellon Wing. Opened in 1984, it was designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York. Against the minimalist McGlothlin Wing, the spaces hold up substantially and look handsome. The post-modernist decorative details such as contrasting woods in the flooring and various moldings offer welcome texture.
The reinstalled Lewis collection of midcentury American art looks strong. Here, as in all the pre-McGlothlin museum spaces, everything looks absolutely fresh. A first-time visitor would never know that some galleries had been in place decades longer than others.
Across the warm-hued Marble Court, the highly intimate Mellon Wing with its equestrian and French art exudes luxuriousness with its smaller, finely-detailed galleries. While I stand in the Mellon gallery at a window overlooking Grove Avenue, I turn around to find these rooms are on an extraordinary axis that shoots straight back through the marble hall, the Lewis galleries, across the Mather-designed atrium, and straight through the American galleries and to the Robinson House. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer established this organizing axis in the 1980s and brilliantly, Mather continued it a generation later.
It's at this spot that it becomes apparent how respectful the new wing is of the existing structure while adding a new - and necessary - 21st-century voice.
I return to the McGlothlin Wing through the familiar 1936 building, taking a route that passes through a gallery of 18th-century paintings hanged one atop the other salon-style, and past the familiar Faberge gallery. Off near the tapestry hall are Byzantine, Renaissance and Northern European paintings. I pass across the adjacent tapestry halls and beneath the gaze of Emperor Septimius Severus, this Roman statue dating to 200 A.D. Other European art is displayed in nearby rooms and eventually will be joined by additional European galleries. Ancient, African and East Asian galleries are also yet to open and work continues on the sculpture garden.
Feeling a little lightheaded, I descend the grand, stone staircase leading to the Boulevard entrance. But instead of heading out into the hot summer sun, I veer left and pass through the art education center. This newly established space has attractive classrooms with large windows that allow art making inside to be enjoyed by passersby.
Today, elementary pupils are completing charcoal self-portraits. The big sheets of paper are laid out. Each child's drawing has surprisingly assured lines, but each is different. This random, passing glance jolts me to realize what this $204-million expansion is all about: the future. I'm reminded that the seeds being cultivated in that studio classroom will grow. One day, 75 years from now, maybe one of these children will be riding up that elevator, donned in all pink - or any other color - expressing themselves? And the ancient question will be asked again, does art imitate life or does life imitate art?