An Historic Exhibition Illuminates Artistic Excellence

An Historic Exhibition Illuminates Artistic Excellence

Five-year-old Clara Hughes of Salem never heard of Vincent van Gogh before a family visit one frigid Frebruary morning to the Radford University Art Museum's exhibition "Van Gogh, Lichtenstein, Whistler: Masterpieces of World Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts."

“I make pictures too — I have four paintings hanging up in our kitchen right now,” the kindergartner said, gazing up at Van Gogh’s classic 1889 painting “The Wheat Field behind St. Paul’s Hospital, St. Rémy.”

“He must’ve used a lot of crayons,” she said, taken with Van Gogh’s characteristic style of heavy, color-soaked brush strokes.

Mother Sandra Hughes, diligent in keeping her daughter’s fingers away from the masterpiece, said, “I think she was born with a crayon in her hand. She’s really happiest when she has a coloring book or pretty much anything to draw on. We learned from a very early age, after finding her earliest ‘works of art’ in red and green crayons all over her bedroom walls, that Clara has a creative, inventive nature. We just try to keep it off our newly painted walls.”

The Van Gogh was one of 29 works in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ (VMFA) 75th anniversary traveling exhibition, which was on display January 21 through March 4, 2011, in the Radford University Art Museum in the Covington Center. Chosen to reflect the evolutionary nature of art, the works in the special exhibition span time and space, with pieces more than 3,000 years old displayed next to contemporary works capturing the modern era’s frenetic energy.

The VMFA chose RU to open the exhibition, capping four years of discussions on potential endeavors between the museum and the university. A key figure in the talks was Barbara-lyn Belcher Morris ’66, co-chair of the RU Centennial Steering Committee and a VMFA trustee since 2007. As the university began planning its 100-year anniversary, Morris had the idea of collaborating with the museum to honor the rich history of both institutions with a monumental art exhibition.

“The Forge” by American impressionist James Abbot McNeil Whistler.

Local resident Diane Christian and retired Professor William Hickam read the description of “The Forge” by American impressionist James Abbot McNeil Whistler.

“When I was appointed to the [VMFA] board, I expressed special interest in statewide outreach because it is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,” Morris said. “I knew that Radford was well situated to be a great partner.”

When VMFA and university officials first met in 2007 to discuss collaborations, the museum had no plans to create a special exhibit for its 75th anniversary. “It wasn’t even on the radar screen,” Morris said, “but I did know at the time that the VMFA was of the mindset of having the very best of its collection travel from the museum.” Both groups saw an opportunity to bring the essence of the VMFA to southwest Virginia. “It was an exemplary partnership,” Morris said.

She and VMFA officials met with Richard Bay, chair of the Radford University Department of Art. He immediately saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shine a spotlight on the university’s outstanding art facilities while representing the VMFA as Virginia’s pinnacle of artistic excellence.

“I loved the potential of what this exhibition had for us,” Bay said. “To me it was a dream to bring this to fruition.” The VMFA’s traveling exhibition is “truly a microcosm of their entire collection,” he said. “Other than making a special trip to Washington, D.C., or Richmond, some of our students and people across southwest Virginia may never get another chance to see anything like this.”

Learning to appreciate and understand art in its historical context is essential to the enrichment of the campus, the community and the university’s art department, he said. “Art students should be exposed to a variety of works from a variety of periods, styles and artists. That becomes a resource for their development as young artists. That’s what’s so critical about bringing in shows like this.”

Ensuring the project’s success — from display of the invaluable, delicate pieces to managing the flow of patrons — was a huge logistical challenge. First, because some pieces in the exhibition are valued at millions of dollars, the university had to demonstrate that the artworks would be safe. Second, for RU to win approval from the VMFA to host the exhibition, the gallery had to meet the strict venue guidelines and parameters of the National Association of Museums.

Andrew “Steve” Arbury, art professor and director of the Radford University Art Museum, led the team that took on the challenge. In summer 2009, technicians and engineers from the VMFA came to campus to conduct a site survey and venue assessment. Their recommendations led to a significant gallery renovation: installation of new bamboo floors, climate controls, museum-standard lighting and an enhanced security system. Arbury and other university officials already had plans for the upgrade before talks began with VMFA. The prospect of hosting the traveling exhibition was the catalyst to begin the work.

The existing security system met the standards for small art shows. The upgrade, begun in May 2010, featured upgraded motion detectors, surveillance cameras inside and outside the building, wireless alarm system components (some attached to the artworks themselves) and vibration sensors on the gallery ceiling.

Robin Nicholson, VMFA’s deputy director for art and education, worked closely with RU on the exhibition, including the extensive improvements to the gallery. “We have a long history of working with partners who are upgrading their museum and gallery facilities to ensure they meet the standards necessary to display our collections,” he said. “VMFA staff consulted on many aspects of the new facility — security, interiors, storage, HVAC — in the hope that this would enable Radford to become one of our museum partners.”

“We were thrilled to be able to share the treasures of the museum with the Radford community and inaugurate our 75th anniversary,” Nicholson continued. “As the largest statewide art museum in the country, VMFA is always looking for opportunities to share its collections and programs throughout the state.”

Following its run at the RU Art Museum, the special traveling exhibition will be at the Piedmont Arts
Association in Martinsville from July 23 through September 24, 2011 before concluding the VMFA anniversary year at the University of Mary Washington Galleries, October 21 through December 2, 2011.

Built in Richmond in 1936, the VMFA was established to be the commonwealth’s flagship art museum and headquarters for an educational network that would extend statewide. When developing the concept for the traveling exhibition, Nicholson said, the VMFA wanted to demonstrate the breadth and quality of the commonwealth’s vast art collection. “The exhibition is an embodiment in miniature of the VMFA, with work spanning millennia from every corner of the world.”

“We wanted to be able to tell how the collection has been assembled over the 75 years of the museum’s existence,” he said, emphasizing that the VMFA’s vast collection has been acquired through private sponsors, benefactors and friends of the museum — no taxpayer money has ever been used. “Every work belongs to the people of Virginia,” Nicholson said. “The exhibition honors some of the great collectors and donors who have contributed to make VMFA one of the top 10 comprehensive art museums in the country.”

hanging art for the VMFA exhibition

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Radford University staff work collaboratively to install the historic exhibition.

Besides the landscape by Post-Impressionist icon Van Gogh, the exhibition features works by American Impressionist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and Lexington, Va.-born photographer Sally Mann.

“It includes significant examples of classical and African art, paintings by European masters such as Van Gogh and George Stubbs, and American masters such as Jasper Cropsey and Robert Henri,” Nicholson said. “We also have excellent examples of Native-American and South American art, and selections from the VMFA’s outstanding collections of Indian and Himalayan art.” Other pieces are Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture, ceramics, glass and jewelry as well as bronzes and prints from the East Asian collection.

Bay said the exhibition’s popularity justified all the hard work and negotiations involved. During “Van Gogh, Lichtenstein, Whistler,” the RU art museum recorded more than 5,000 visitors, more than all of 2010. “In just one day we had 10 school groups averaging 30 to 40 kids a group, so that was at least 300 to 400 visitors that day alone,” Bay said. “It’s more than a viewing experience. It’s an all-encompassing learning experience.”

Bay saved the thousands of e-mails exchanged over four years among his department, RU administrators and VMFA officials. “The list goes on and on and on,” he said with a smile. “It was a constant massaging of the relationship, keeping people on board, showing them how we were progressing. There were huge milestones accomplished.”

The art museum isn’t doing its job unless it is educating students, faculty members and the public on how to appreciate art at the highest level, according to Bay. “It’s been driving me the whole time, and I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it in the faces of all the school kids who come here, in the people visiting from Roanoke, people from Bristol and those from all across the state — to just see that look on their faces of ‘wow!’ It’s about planting that seed in someone’s mind and in their heart about the beauty that’s truly in the world and created by these individual artistic masters across time.”

In the mind of Clara Hughes, the young crayon artist from Salem, that seed of creativity is certainly growing. “My paintings will be up there too — when I’m bigger,” she said matter-of-factly. “Then maybe they’ll let me touch them if I want to.”