This month the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts re-opens following a massive expansion and renovation of its galleries and grounds. Philippa Glanville reports on architect Rick Mather's latest museum transformation.

When architect Rick Mather first visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) a decade ago, he was struck by the building's lack of external views. Its leafy Richmond setting, flanked by 19th-century terraced houses with their characteristic shady verandas, was invisible from indoors, as were the picturesque older buildings scattered across the museum's site. Until this year the VMFA was blind to the street, its original Georgian Revival entrance having been closed in the mid-1970s, and visitors were forced to approach obliquely through a car park before entering into an unsatisfactory and confusing building. Now, however, visible from almost every level of the Rick Mather-designed, transparent structure that is the new James W and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing of the VMFA are a Confederate chapel. A former Confederate Widows home - these days the Pauley Centre for art education across the state - and a mid-19th century farmhouse. In addition, a 13.5-acre area of landscaped park surrounding the museum, deeded by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1993 has been transformed by water, planting and a sculpture garden.

Mather's much admired emphasis on both clarity of function and the power of light and space to lift one's spirits has transformed the VMFA. This subtle and agreeable scheme - the first American project for the London-based 72-year old, who originally hails from Portland, Oregon - shares many characteristics with the urban masterplans he has executed in Britain over the past 25 years, notably for London's South Bank Centre and the University of Lincoln, and museum projects for the National Maritime Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and most recently the Ashmolean Museum (see 'Apollo November 09).

For the VMFA extension, which adds 100,000 square feet to the museum, Mather has exploited the potential of a long, top-lit atrium given by Louise and Harwood Cochrane. Straddling this dramatic space, glass bridges and lifts link the old and new galleries of the museum's enjoyably diverse and rich collections, so that the galleries now flow seamlessly, without dead ends or awkward changes in level. At the Boulevard end of the atrium, a 40~foot-tall window frames a view of trees and old buildings. Meanwhile, 20th-century sculpture and comfortable seating in a break-out space, hinting at the pleasures within, are visible from the street. At night the museum, gleaming with pools of light like a great ocean liner, declares its presence to passing drivers with a glass rower carrying its logo. At ground level, this glowing, day-lit space is ornamented with a lively 16-panel screenprint commissioned for the opening from Ryan McGinnis, a Virginian-born artist in his mid-30s, which ingeniously mingles 100 motifs taken from art in the museum's collections. A gently curving glazed wall defines the new Freeman Library, recently enriched by a gift of 10,000 works on paper ranging from etchings by Hollar to prints by Whistler. Higher up, an internal window offers glimpses of Attic vases, evoking an earlier age of museum values; while down a gently graded flight of stairs lie 12,000 square feet of new exhibition galleries for which the museum has an ambitious programme, starting with a Tiffany show from Montreal this summer and Ife bronzes from the British Museum next spring. 

A major contribution to the civic and public architecture of Richmond, the McGlothlin Wing links the original brick and limestone structure from 1935, designed by Peebles and Ferguson Architects of Norfolk, and the 1985 extension by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York. Mather's design settles gently into its park, with little of the arrogant thrust of some recent museum extensions. Indeed, over the past nine years the Board, Rick Mather Architects (in partnership with local firm SMBW Architects) and the OLIN studio, a landscape architecture firm based in Philadelphia, have together developed a carefully thought-out rnasterplan for the whole site. (Although no hint of the Civil War enters the museum, the site has resonance for Southerners as the former location of the Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers' Home.) The only blot on this harmonious landscape is a rather oppressive extension to the neighbouring Virginia Historical Society. Private funding was essential to achieve the park setting which is a key element in the newly extended VMFA. A large (600 space) car park, that inevitable feature of all American public amenities, is now concealed under an elevated terrace, planted with local trees and complete with an infinity pool - which not only allows for scenic views but also promises environmental benefits - excessive and polluted stormwater run-off from the old exposed tarmac surface had become a hazard for Chesapeake Bay's famous wildlife. A priority was to determine how best to gently nudge visitors along, from the moment of driving onto the site across a paved square, parking and then strolling past lawns and a stream toward the museum entrance.

The designers' emphasis on the external environment should not obscure the many delights and surprises to be found within the museum itself. For although the VMFA'S collections ate rich, diverse and for the most part beautifully presented, beyond the region they are less well-known than they ought to be - perhaps because Washington, DC, is a little too close. The VMFA has a proud history. Opening in 1936, it was one of the first state-operated American art museums, having been partly funded through Virginia state revenues and money from the Federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) in addition to significant private contributions. Four extensions were added, in 1954,1970,1976 and 1985 (for the Mellon Collection of Impressionist art and the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection). Thanks to generous donors, the VMFA collections now present the arts of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas through 5,000 years of human achievement.

The museum's spirit of inclusiveness - in a region once associated with social and economic divisions and enduring commitment to education have long earned it wide support. Intelligent interpretation of art history has always had priority both in the museum's galleries and in its regional touring exhibitions; enjoyable graphics, often enriched with images, as in the recently re-installed Lewis Galleries, avoid austere language and pompous art-historical jargon. Near the museum entrance but shielded from adult visitors, is a 70-foot bench accommodating the bus-loads of children that frequently arrive to take advantage of the VMFA's educational programmes; toddlers, for example, enjoy the art experience in fun, 20 minute tutorial sections. In addition, recent initiatives designed to take art into the community have included taking replicas of works in the collection to Alzheimer's sufferers. Such projects strikingly demonstrate the therapeutic potential of art exposure to images and colour stimulate a response in even the most severely stricken and isolated participants, and in addition reinvigorate their carers.

But of course, it is the exceptional collections of the VMFA which are the greatest attraction for most visitors. Between 1905 and the late 1920s Ludwig and Rosy Fischer assembled a striking and unusual collection of German Expressionist art, half of which was saved from the Nazis when one of their sons, Dr Ernst Fischer, fled German)' for the us in 1934; this collection was gifted to the museum upon the death of Dr Fischer's widow in 2009. Other donors have enriched the core collections in some surprising directions: one recent arrival a gift from the Museum of the City of New York, is a striking and fully furnished 'Aesthetic Movement bedroom devised for the New York mansion of a Richmond arriviste, Arabella Yarrington, during the 1880s. Another new addition - a centrepiece of the South Asian collection itself among the best in North America - is a marble pavilion from Rajasthan set against strong saffron-yellow walls. Throughout the galleries there is a refreshing use of colour to enhance the exhibits and differentiate any subject or period from another - a tribute to the aesthetic sense of David Noyes, the museum's longstanding in-house designer and an artist himself New Yorkers in particular have been generous over the years, no doubt appreciating the traditional welcome offered by Virginians as well as the genuine quality of the VMFA'S collections of both decorative and fine art. Leading figures among them have been Rita Gans and her late husband, Jerome (Jerry) Gans, self-described 'carpetbaggers' and passionate enthusiasts for English silver. In 1988 they lent the exceptional collection of silver - by Paul de Lamer Paul Storr and other leading artists of the 18th and 19th centuries - to the museum, but after Jerry's death in 1996 Rita decided to donate it in her husband's memory. Rita has since made additional gifts of some 50 refined and jewel-like examples of English silver 'Collecting is a disease: she says. 'At 85, I am stopping now - although the desire is still there, the passion no longer is. I want to make Richmond a very fine museum for English silver, and the new collection will really do it.' With typical insight, she has included her latest gift a rare 15th-century woodwose spoon, a modest Iuxury which recalls the long English love affair with silver; in fact this small object may well speak to visitors more eloquently than many of the grander pieces.

Born in New York into a modest family, Rita was taken to museums by her father, a native New Yorker, from an early age, and she also shared her Russian mother's pleasure in haunting little antique shops. Although her mother could not afford the items she most admired, Rita nonetheless learned to handle, to judge condition and form and to appreciate the few pretty things that her mother did assemble. Once married, she and Jerry began collecting together, working hard to dress a room in their Long Island house with Dr Lamerie silver. A certain De Lamerie-marked fish slice, part of the lavish dinner service acquired by Lord Anson, was jerry's 'desert island' object, a joyous and skilfully devised example of rococo tableware. At one auction it went beyond the Gans' top bid and entered an Australian collection; when it reappeared many years later at '"auction in New York, such is the trade recognition and respect for the Gans collection and family that Rita was able to buy it with little opposition. Shrewd, hospitable, a bringer together of people, Rita is in a long tradition of hostesses who use their money creatively in memorable parties marking life's major landmarks. Having no previous Southern associations, she recalls the charm and responsiveness of then director Paul Perrot on her and Jerry's initial visit to the VMFA, before stating simply: 'Our silver was needed down there and we could work with them.' Since then she has sponsored a conference, publications and catalogues and an annual lecture on silver, with advice from her curator, Ellenor Alcorn. Designed by Leon Horowitz and Cad Leonard in a rich palette of warm red and cherry wood, the new gallery housing the Jerome and Rira Gans Collection will open in the autumn (Fig. 7). And although she may claim her passion for collecting to be on the \vane, Rita - a mathematician by profession - has always been her own woman, with a clear eye for quality and willingness to buy not only in the open auction room but also privately: The silver world will watch with interest to see what she does next

The roots of the new \/MFA lie in the optimistic and expansive mid-1990s, when trustees and staff devised "a long-term plan for the museum. While cultural and economic fortunes have fluctuated over the succeeding years, admirably the core values from this period have survived. The complexity of a museum extension is comparable only to a similar undertaking at a hospital in terms of the diverse and sometimes contradictory needs that arise, be they for anything from adequate conservation studios to agreeable spaces for entertaining, always a VMFA tradition. Forty years ago, parties were held in the Tapestry Court, with cocktails, canapés and clouds of tobacco smoke; now the collection of handsome 17th- and 18th-century tapestries have been cleaned and rehung, and even the spectacular glass bridges have been made wide enough to take a dinner table, following a precedent set by Sir Roy Strong at the V&A, In any successful project personalities matter more than is sometimes acknowledged. Throughout successive directors and their interim replacements, Senior Deputy Director Richard Woodward has played a key role, providing continuity, encouraging the Board to travel far afield and critique new museum projects overseas, inviting proposals from almost 40 international practices and now overseeing the final stages of installation. Here also the mutual trust between Board and Stare has been maintained, despite funding pressures. Rick Mather's architectural insight, experience and powers of gentle persuasion have clearly played a significant part too, Thankfully, these combined efforts have produced a successful and harmonious outcome for a much-loved institution - one that hopefully generate the sort of worldwide attention that it so richly deserves.