Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The VMFA void: The latest unfortunate atrium

Pin It

When I walked into the newly expanded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond recently, I found myself in a giant white lobby-atrium, the kind of mega-void that has become practically required in new art museum buildings. Think MoMA, think the Indianapolis Museum of Art (times two!), think the East Building of the National Gallery of Art or the High Museum. (I understand the Modern Wing at the Art Institute features same, but I haven’t been.)

I looked around VMFA for the art. Hmm, where could it be… I found the bookstore, which has an opening from the path into the atrium and another opening into the atrium itself. I found the cafe, which has a lovely outdoor patio that looks out over a pool of water and, soon, a contemporary sculpture garden. I found the museum’s library, which was smartly, invitingly located where anyone could easily access it. (In the photograph above, it’s roughly where that golden light comes in on the left.) But still: Where were the galleries? Everywhere I looked: drywall, drywall, drywall. Well, OK, drywall plus one giant plexi window, which seemed like a peek-a-boo prophylactic that protects atrium visitors from the galleries, or vice-versa.

I saw staircases that led up to somewheres. At the top of each flight of stairs were small words on the wall. That seemed to indicate that there may be galleries up there. However, the doors near the words looked like small fire doors on a seawall of drywall — little about them invitingly suggested that the reason to visit the museum was beyond. (See the picture below. And imagine looking up two or three floors to these doors/signs.) Museum officials point out that the tiny words on the wall say “art deco” or something that indicates there is art beyond. Against three stories of drywall and an atrium the size of Delaware, that light-colored text, next to doors about the size of the bathroom doors at my neighborhood Starbucks, is not helpful. Also, a sign in front of me indicated that there were special exhibitions on a “lower level,” but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. (The only staircase going downstairs that I saw seemed to go to an auditorium.)

Eventually I found a little dead-end shoebox gallery with a few paintings in it. It was the only gallery on the main floor. I slowly realized that the VMFA had built a giant fish-tank atrium that made it not only difficult to find the art, but that the museum had put almost no galleries on the level at which people enter the museum. I do not understand this. [Image: Flickr user Mimmyg, who has a nice pool of VMFA pictures.]

As frustrating as it was to excitedly enter a new museum building and to be unable to find art, I was only just beginning to understand the extent of VMFA’s design error. Over the next seven hours I wandered through VMFA’s three joined buildings. The new atrium effectively separates VMFA’s new galleries of American art, contemporary art and South Asian art from the museum’s previous galleries of everything else (modern art, European art, art deco, art nouveau, British silver, Faberge and so on). The VMFA atrium isn’t a common space that helps the museum’s three buildings cohere, it separates them.

It seemed obvious to me that when you separate one building from two others with an an acre of three or four stories of drywall that you cut off two parts of the museum from the third. When I visited, the new building and its galleries were full of people. The two older buildings were almost empty. I wasn’t the only one who either couldn’t figure out how to find the art or who found that the connections between buildings and galleries were badly lacking.

At first I couldn’t understand why the museum would want to break itself up like this. Finally I read a Richmond Times-Dispatch story in which VMFA officials told the paper that they expect rental income, from cocktail parties and the like, to triple to $900,000 a year. That would be fourth-best among American art museums. No wonder the new building seems to have been designed for ‘event space’ first, art second. [Image: Hallway from the parking deck into the VMFA void, featuring Ryan McGinness’ Art History is Not Linear (VMFA).]

If any one art museum building serve as the tombstone for these kind of corporate-entertaining-enabling, vanity-voids, it should be this new Rick Mather-designed atrium in Richmond. It is a soulless, sterile, mostly empty vault. Museum directors: Bring your trustees here to show them what not to do. If you need space that generates revenue, fine. Use this void space to motivate you to come up with new ideas.

Tomorrow: Finding my way out of the atrium and into the galleries. Previously: One of America’s quietest museums quietly expands.

Related: Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott loved the VMFA’s new Mather.

Pin It


  1. greg.org says:

    Where did I read/hear that the driver for the East Wing of the National Gallery was Washington’s utter lack of a grand, non-partisan party space?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Please consider, too, in light of recent European art thefts, that having a large, open space at the entrance is an important security measure. It’s obviously not a good idea to have art right next to an entrance for both security and environmental reasons.

  3. Andrew says:

    I think the atrium itself IS art. Connecting the outside with the in and yes, the old building with the new. I also find it funny that you say you couldn’t find any art but the Ryan McGinness (pictured above) is right at the entrance of the building.

    Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or even bad. It may just not be for you, which is fine. And don’t disparage a museum for trying to make money. Especially a FREE museum.

  4. Lily says:

    As soon as you began describing the atrium, I guessed that it might have to do with rental income. My studio is currently across the street from the MFA Houston, and I have been amazed by the number of events (especially breathtakingly over-the-top wedding receptions) that take place in that space. I have often wondered how that rental-function impacts other decisions (curatorial, logistic, etc). I’m afraid that a diluted atrium experience won’t be the most dangerous consequence of the various conflicts-of-interest happening within art museums these days.

  5. D.G. says:

    Having written a class essay that makes much the same complaint about the east wing last year, I have to side with Tyler on this one. While a large open space at the entrance does help, that doesn’t mean you can’t A) design the entrance so it directs you to the art(like most older large art museums, where the stairs to the galleries face the entrance and B) make the entrance to the galleries more noticable the gift shop/cafe.

  6. CV says:

    I drove down to VMFA 2 hours from DC- a frazzle of a drive. Found that when I walked into that huge Atrium, all the frazzle just went away and my eyes and mind sort of reset to hey lets look at art. Not being all knowing, I grabbed a printed guide so I knew where stuff was. Headed for the American art – lot more out now than there used to be. Decided to follow the map that said the 20th C stuff was across the atrium and there was a bridge that took me right there.

    Walked out onto the bridge, and once again got that zen-like decompression, lingered a bit and noticed that when I looked out the garden window the clouds and sky were reflected in the reflecting pool – like a real life Monet waterlily- did the architect know this would happen?

    Anyway a bit refreshed hit the 20thC stuff

    So I’d say the atrium worked for me, like a sorbet break in a good meal.

    But Tyler’s right, the museum could do a bit better job on signage for those folks who can’t read floor plans.

    I don’t begrudge them making money with it, at least they aren’t selling off art to pay the bills

  7. SW says:

    Lily is right. The Atrium is meant to be an event space and has already been put to good use. I am not sure what the design philosophy of the architect was but it is very open and light and can accomodate large parties.

    In my view, the minimal access to galleries on the first level protects the galleries from too much contact during events. When it is all filled with people, flowers and place settings, it is a truly beautiful and dignified place for a special occasion.

    Let’s not forget that this source of income keeps visits to the museum free and available to anyone who wants to come. That is really important.

  8. Tara Morand says:

    After reading the article I wonder what this author really knows about museums. This museum EXPANDED artfully bridging an older traditional building with new architecture providing more space for the collections. The museum is free so it does not get funds besides private donors and state money. If it needs to have private functions to survive it should do do. The space is inviting and you must be blind because their is a huge Lewit sculpture and the giant hare visible from the street as well as the atrium. The elevated walkways draw you to the older section in a fluid seamless way that especially with the American art galleries you are transported though a nice timeline. If you had such difficulty finding the art perhaps you should take a tour, which again is free and the docents are knowledgable and ready to take you through. Every museum I have been to has an entrance, the Mona Lisa is not on the front door of the Louvre. Try finding your way around that maze. It is a beautiful space.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The East Wing in DC displays a fabulous Calder. It needs the space. But, I agree about the VMFA atrium. It is just open space.


    I love the renovation… and think it perfect!

  11. Debra Stoss says:

    Yes, the printed maps of the VMFA will easily guide even the most jaded museum critic to the galleries if one bothers to pick one up. They are not at all hidden but 100’s are hanging on one of those dry-walled walls just as a visitor walks into the main entrance. They are also available from one of the very friendly staff members at the visitors desk who also will be glad to point the way up the stairs to where the galleries are waiting behind the glass doors or point the way down the stairs to the special exhibition galleries. And yes, the well trained docents at the VMFA are very knowledgeable and in a quick 45 minute tour will have you easily acclimated to the floor plan and probably surprise the most jaded museum critic by telling him something he doesn’t already know. Like how it is not unfortunate that such a wonderful common, open space combines, not separates, the galleries of the always free museum. From the exterior to the interior, the museum is welcoming, inviting and inclusive, not stuffy and exclusive. The VMFA invites everyone to visit for a variety of reasons other than seeing the collections (eat, drink, dance, shop, music, lectures) but no matter the reason, everyone who visits ends up looking at the art. It is not difficult to find.

  12. Peter says:

    And the reason there’s no art in these atria is insurance: You can’t have works of art in proximity to all those drinks lurching around in the hands of party-goers.

  13. […] that they may lease out for events. (Spaces for this purpose at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond damaged those expansions by cleaving the new galleries from the long-time galleries, that is, […]

Add a Comment