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.