By Roy Proctor, Special Correspondent Richmond Times Dispatch

Come Saturday, the tuxedos will be tucked away. All the invitation-only hoopla heralding the opening of the new and improved Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will have run its course.

Saturday, the official opening day, and next Sunday will be devoted to the general public, who are expected to descend on the 13½-acre museum campus at North Boulevard and Grove Avenue in record numbers to see what $150 million has wrought.

What will visitors experience beyond the free refreshments, the bands, the hat-making party, the belly dancers, the sand-mandala-creating Tibetan monks and all the other bids for attention?

Senior deputy director Richard B. Woodward, who joined the museum staff in 1975, led a recent walk-through from the perspective of a visitor next weekend.He revealed a once-provincial art museum that has catapulted itself into the nation's Top 10 in size, an awesome architectural and logistical achievement, but also a work in progress.

"When I came here, the museum was pretty much for Virginia," he said. "Now it will reach a very wide audience in Virginia and beyond."

Next weekend's visitors can access the museum's 600-car, three-level parking deck either from the Boulevard or from Shepherd Street behind the campus. Each level will offer its own ramp extending the approximately 250 feet to the spacious Mary Morton Parsons Plaza, which leads to the museum's new front door in the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing. With its connecting Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Atrium, this wing adds 165,000 square feet of space to the pre-existing 380,000-square-foot building. The upper concrete ramp flies through the air. The lower concrete ramp hugs the ground as it ascends a slope. The middle ramp, paved with Nordic Black granite from Canada, is level.

To the left, visitors will see the campus' 1850s brick farmhouse, called Robinson House, with a spruced-up exterior. To the right they will encounter the beginnings of the new $7 million, 3½-acre E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden, which replaces the museum's former parking lot and slopes upward to cover most of the parking deck. It's expected to be partially sodded by next weekend. Its two reflecting pools should be filled with water, but no sculpture will be in place.

Visitors will enter the glass and limestone McGlothlin Wing through a massive glass door with flanking windows and stainless-steel columns. They will proceed down a 20-foot-high, 20-foot-wide and 90-foot-long entry concourse to reach the four-story atrium paved in black granite and trimmed in white marble.

As designed by Oregon-born, London-based architect Rick Mather, the atrium is part secular cathedral, part Piranesi architectural fantasy in glass. Five glass-sided bridges span it at various levels to connect galleries in the McGlothlin Wing to galleries in the pre-existing building.

The partially glass ceiling soars 65 feet above the lower-level stairwell. The glass ends of the atrium provide vistas on the sculpture garden and the Boulevard. The Boulevard end features a 40-foot-high pane of glass that is said to be the largest single pane of glass without visible means of support in North America.

Mather has called the atrium a "main street" in a "city in miniature."

The atrium offers visitors many choices. In addition to staircases, two glass elevators and an enclosed elevator will whisk visitors between the levels.

Surrounding the visitor on the entry level will be an information desk, a large gift shop, the Best Café and a commodious library in addition to free-standing sculpture. The so-called Focus Galleries off the atrium will present small changing exhibitions. The inaugural show: "Matisse, Picasso and Modern Art in Paris," is from the museum's collections.

Go down one level to reach the new special-exhibition galleries. They will offer "American Art from the McGlothlin Collection," spotlighting a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of art that has been promised to the museum, and "German Expressionist Art: Selections From the Fischer Collection," which offers a sampler of a Richmond collection recently acquired by the museum in a gift-purchase arrangement. Go up one level to access the American, Pre-Columbian, Native American and 21st-century collections. The top level is home to the museum's world-ranked Indian and Himalayan collections as well as the upscale Amuse Restaurant, which features a dining terrace cantilevered over the sculpture garden.

All public areas in the new wing and atrium will be open next weekend, but some parts of the pre-existing building will be off-limits. The sequenced installation of fire-suppression measures in the older parts of the building means that the Egyptian, East Asian, African and 19thand early 20th-century European collections will open in that order through mid-2011, according to Woodward.

But there's still plenty to see, much of it new, in the older parts of the building. New space-saving construction in the Sydney and Frances Lewis half of the West Wing, for example, allows 50 percent more space for the display of the Lewises' world-renowned Art Nouveau and Art Deco collections without sacrificing space devoted to the Lewises' collections of art since World War II. And the museum's collection of European art from the Byzantine era through the 18th century will be on full display. It is built around the former Great Hall, now renamed the Tapestry Gallery to denote its new status as a showcase for the museum's extensive collection of European tapestries.

Woodward, whose job is overseeing the project's architecture and design, is very pleased with the transformation of the institution in which he has labored for 35 years. He likes to point out ways in which the collections lock into each other in logical progressions, thanks in large part to those atrium bridges. The American collection, for example, connects via a bridge to the Lewises' largely American midto late-20th-century collection, which, in turn, connects into the 21st-century collection via another bridge. Woodward revels in the fact that, for the first time since the South Wing abutting Grove Avenue was built in 1970, more space has been allotted for the permanent collections, which never ceased to burgeon.

"This time, finally, we are able to expand our galleries for the permanent collection by 50 percent and the space for special exhibitions by 100 percent," he said. "Every collecting area is getting more space. We are completely reinstalling the museum."

He's proud of the long vistas Mather has created through the old building and new construction. Three east-west vistas stretch the 300-foot width of the structure to show daylight at each end. Ditto the three 400-foot vistas stretching north to south.

He's proud of the carefully controlled sunlight that energizes the building. Above all, he's proud of Mather's vision and the ways in which it has been achieved.

"He has given us a very exciting building," Woodward said.

"I have come to characterize Rick Mather's design as architecture of invitation, opportunity and connection on the basis of the use of glass and open views between exterior and interior and from gallery to gallery and space to space within the building."

Mather, 72, was 63 when he was hired.

"I wish I could have figured out a way to make this happen faster," he said by phone from his office in North London's Camden Town, "but I realize there was nothing I could do about it.

"I'm pretty pleased with how this has turned out."

Mather, who specializes in enlarging museums, was hired partly on the basis of an impressive track record that included expanding the London area's Dulwich Picture Gallery, National Maritime Museum and Wallace Collection as well as, more recently, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

The Virginia Museum is his largest museum project in cost and square footage.

"In Richmond, we had a wonderful landscape and garden to work with. Unlike the Ashmolean and the Maritime Museum, where we were hemmed in by buildings, we could create long views. I don't like the feeling of being trapped inside a labyrinth.

"The exterior in Richmond is actually a simple volume, basically a box with a bit of interest, but you see the inside of the building coming out with all the windows. I think it's important on the outside to see what's going on inside.

"The nature of museums is changing. They're trying to open out and engage the public more, and I think we did that in Richmond. It's nice to have the opportunity to turn so many negatives into positives."