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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts - entrance Fall2010.JPG
VFMA in 2010
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Established March 27, 1934 (1934-03-27)
Location 200 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., Richmond, VA 23220
Type Art museum
Accreditation American Alliance of Museums
Key holdings Faberge eggs
Collections Modern and Contemporary art
Collection size 22,000 works (as of 2011)
Architect Rick Mather & SMBW (2010 addition)
Public transit access Greater Richmond Transit Company bus route 16, stop at Grove Ave. between Thompson & Robinson.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, or VMFA, is a public art museum in Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, which opened in 1936. The museum is owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Private donations, endowments, and funds are used for the support of specific programs and all acquisition of artwork, as well as additional general support.

Considered among of the largest art museums in North America for square footage of exhibition space, the VMFA's comprehensive art collection includes African art, American art, British sporting art, Fabergé, and Himalayan art. One of the first museums in the American South to be operated by state funds, VMFA offers free admission, except for special exhibits.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, together with the adjacent Virginia Historical Society, anchors the eponymous "Museum District" of Richmond, and area of the city known as "West of the Boulevard". The museum includes the Leslie Cheek Theater, a performing arts venue.



The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has its origins in a 1919 donation of 50 paintings to the Commonwealth of Virginia by Judge John Barton Payne. During the Great Depression, Payne collaborated with Virginia Governor John Garland Pollard to gain funding from the Federal Works Projects Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to augment state funding and establish the state art museum in 1932.

The site for the museum was chosen on Richmond's Boulevard, near the corner of a contiguous six-block tract of land used as a veterans' home for Confederate soldiers, with additional services for their wives and daughters.

The main building of the VMFA was designed by Peebles and Ferguson Architects of Norfolk, and has been alternately described as Georgian Revival and English Renaissance. Commentators have said the architects expressed influence from Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren. Construction began in 1934. Two wings were originally planned, yet only the central portion was built at the time. The museum opened on January 16, 1936.

First expansion and major acquisitions 1940 - 1969

The Peter the Great Egg by the firm of Fabergé, donated to the museum in 1947.

In 1947, the VMFA was given the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection of some 150 jeweled objects by Peter Carl Fabergé and other Russian workshops, including the largest public collection of Fabergé eggs outside of Russia. The Museum also received in 1947 the "T. Catesby Jones Collection of Modern Art". Further donations in the 1950s came from Adolph D. Williams and Wilkins C. Williams, and from Arthur and Margaret Glasgow. They established the museum's oldest funds used for art acquisitions.

Leslie Cheek, Jr. became director of the museum in 1948 and served until 1968. During these decades, he introduced many innovations and was noted as having had significant influence on the course of the institution. His obituary in the New York Times said that he "transformed [the VMFA] from a small local gallery to a nationally known cultural center." Cheek in 1953 introduced the world's first "Artmobile", a mobile tractor-trailer that carried exhibits to rural areas (prior to museum galleries being established in distant areas). In 1960, he was the first in the United States to introduce night hours at an art museum.

Cheek worked with his curators and designers to cultivate a degree of theatrical "showmanship" in exhibits, such as velvet drapery for the Fabergé collection, a "tomb-like" setting of the museum's Egyptian exhibit, and using music to set the mood in the galleries.

During his tenure, Cheek oversaw construction of the first addition, built in 1954 by Merrill C. Lee, Architects, of Richmond. The wing, funded in part by Paul Mellon, included a 500-seat theater. Cheek wanted to bring together the performing arts and visual arts in a single cultural facility.

Leslie Cheek Theater (Virginia Museum Theater)

What is now known as the Leslie Cheek Theater, the 500-seat proscenium theater within VMFA, was originally built in 1955 and known as the Virginia Museum Theater. It was designed under the supervision of director Cheek, a Harvard/Yale-educated architect. He consulted with Yale Drama theater engineers Donald Oenslager and George Izenour for the state-of-the-art facility. Cheek envisioned a central role for a theater arts division in the museum. The theater brought the arts of drama, acting, design, music, and dance to the art galleries.

Through the 1960s, the Virginia Museum Theater (VMT) hosted a museum-sponsored volunteer or "community theater" company, under the direction of Robert Telford. The company presented subscription seasons of live drama to thousands annually. Local players and occasional guest professionals offered musicals (Peter Pan, e.g.), dramas (Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun), and classics (Shakespeare's Hamlet). VMT also served as a venue for annual programs of the Virginia Music Society, Virginia Dance Society, and Virginia Film Society. Cheek retired from the museum in 1968 but was an adviser to the VMFA trustees about the next director of the theater arts division.

In 1969 Keith Fowler was appointed as artistic director of VMT. Under Fowler, VMT continued to serve as the headquarters for the Dance, Film and Music societies. He is known for having expanded and upgrading the live theater operations, establishing Richmond's first resident Actors Equity/LORT company. Both community actors and New-York based professionals became part of this. a troupe that included core members Marie Goodman Hunter, Janet Bell, Lynda Myles, E.G. Marshall, Ken Letner, James Kirkland, Rachael Lindhart, and dramaturg M. Elizabeth Osborn.

Fowler retained a focus on classics and musicals, but added an emphasis on new plays and U.S. premieres of foreign works. His debut production in 1969, Marat/Sade, was produced with the first racially integrated company on the VMT stage. This decision generated controversy.

The company became known as VMT Rep (for "repertory"). Fowler attracted national notice in 1973 with his production of Macbeth, starring E.G. Marshall. Critic Clive Barnes of The New York Times hailed it as the "'Fowler Macbeth'... "splendidly vigorous... probably the goriest Shakespearean production I have seen since Peter Brook's 'Titus Andronicus'." As Fowler heightened the professional quality of the theater, VMT led Richmond into what some recall as a golden age of theater.

The company commissioned and produced eight American and World premieres, introducing new plays by Romulus Linney and A.R. Gurney, as well as by major foreign authors, such as Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Athol Fugard, and Peter Handke. In 1975 the Soviet Arts Consul provided coverage on Moscow Television for Fowler's U.S premiere of Maxim Gorky's Our Father (originally Poslednje in Russian). This VMT production transferred to New York City, where it premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club.

Over eight years, VMT's subscription audience increased from 4,300 to 10,000 patrons. Fowler resigned in 1977 after a dispute with VMFA administration over the content in VMT's premiere of Romulus Linney's Childe Byron.

Successive artistic directors Tom Markus and Terry Burglar renamed the company and its playhouse "TheatreVirginia." As with all American professional not-for-profit performing arts organizations, TheatreVirginia ran mounting deficits for years, underwritten by trustees.

But in 2002, the decision was made to close TheatreVirginia. It struggled financially to operate in a state-supported museum. In addition, that year audiences declined, fearing a series of regional sniper attacks that killed five.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2021 a
VMFA Lewis Galleries in 2021

For eight years the theater was dormant. It was renovated and revived as a live performance space in 2011, and named the Leslie Cheek Theater in honor of its early director. The theater's reopening has returned live performing arts to the heart of the Virginia Museum. The Leslie Cheek Theater does not support a resident company, but is available for bookings of special theater, music, film, and dance showings.

Building expansions 1970 - 1990

The second addition, the South Wing, was designed by Baskervill & Son Architects of Richmond and completed in 1970. It featured four new permanent galleries and a large gallery for loan exhibitions, as well as a new library, photography lab, art storage rooms, and staff offices. A gift of funds from Sydney and Frances Lewis of Richmond in 1971, provided for the acquisition of Art Nouveau objects and furniture.

A third addition, known as the North Wing, was designed by Hardwicke Associates, Inc. of Richmond and completed in 1976. It included an adjacent sculpture garden with a cascading fountain, designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The North Wing was designed as the new main entrance for the museum, with a separate dedicated entrance added for the theater. It provided three more gallery areas – two for temporary exhibitions and one for the Lewis Family's Art Nouveau Collection while also housing a gift shop, members' dining room, and other visitor functions. However, the curved walls of the North Wing's "kidney-shaped" design proved to be functionally awkward and impractical, and it was later replaced. The 1976 wing and sculpture garden were later demolished to make room for the 2010 McGlothlin Wing.

In the following years, the Lewis and Mellon families proposed major donations from their extensive private collections, and helped provide the funds to house them. In December 1985, the museum opened its fourth addition, the 90,000 square feet (8,400 m2) square foot West Wing. The architects, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York, were chosen by the Lewises based on their appreciation of the firm's 1981 design for the Best Products headquarters building north of Richmond. The wing now houses the collections of these two families.

Redesigned campus and McGlothlin wing expansion 1991 - 2010

Home For Confederate Women
Pauley Center (Home for Confederate Women) v1.JPG
Location 301 N. Sheppard St., Richmond, Virginia
Area 2 acres (0.81 ha)
Built 1932
Architect Lee, Merrill
Architectural style Federal, Federal Revival
NRHP reference No. 85002767
Significant dates
Added to NRHP November 7, 1985
Robinson House 2014
Robinson House 2014

In 1993, the Commonwealth of Virginia transferred the care of the Robinson House from the Department of General Services to VMFA. The nearly fourteen acre property of Robinson House, a former veterans camp, was transferred between state agencies to the museum. Beginning in 2001, the VMFA created a master plan for development of this land in what was otherwise a built-out residential part of the city.

By the 1990s, the functions of the adjacent Confederate Home for Women had ceased, and its last residents moved out. In 1999, the former home was adapted for use as the Center for Education and Outreach (now the Pauley Center), housing the museum's Office of Statewide Partnerships.

The VMFA undertook a $150-million building expansion to increase the museum's gallery space by fifty percent, adding 165,000 square feet (15,300 m2). The new wing opened in 2010 and was named in honor of patrons James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin. The museum reoriented the McGlothlin Wing by reinstating the entrance on the Boulevard, the same as with the original 1936 entrance.

The design includes a three-story atrium named for Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane, with a 40-foot (12 m)-tall glass wall to the east and broad expanses of glass walls to the west, and a partially glazed roof. The London-based architect Rick Mather collaborated with Richmond-based SMBW Architects in the design of the building, while landscape architecture was handled by OLIN. Landscaping included a new 4-acre (16,000 m2) sculpture garden, named for philanthropists E. Claiborne and Lora Robins.

American art is the major focus of exhibitions in the McGlothlin Wing. In 2008 the museum received a $200,000 grant from the Luce Foundation to support the installation and interpretation of its American collections. Mather's design for the VMFA expansion earned a 2011 RIBA International Award for architectural excellence.

Permanent collection

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has divided its encyclopedic collections into several broad curatorial departments, which largely correspond to the galleries:

  • African Art: In 1994 and 1995, the museum exhibited its entire 250-object African art collection in Spirit of the Motherland: African Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. As of 2011, the collection has grown to around 500 objects, with particular strengths in the art of the Kuba, the Akan, the Yoruba, and the Kongo peoples, and the art of Mali.
  • American Art: The American art collection began with twenty works of the John Barton Payne donation. Since the 1980s, the museum has begun to systematically build its holdings in American art, aided in 1988 by the creation of an endowment by patrons Harwood and Louise Cochrane to support such acquisitions.
In 2005, the McGlothlin family promised a bequest of their collection of American art and financial support, valued at well above $100 million.
  • Ancient American art
  • Ancient art: Begun in 1936, the Ancient collection expanded under Director Leslie Cheek, with the advice of the Brooklyn Museum and other institutions. The collection consists of works from the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Phrygian, Etruscan, Ancient Roman, and Byzantine civilizations. It includes one of two ancient Egyptian mummies in the city of Richmond, "Tjeby" (the other is at the University of Richmond).
  • Art Nouveau & Art Deco: Begun from the core collection of furniture and decorative arts the Lewis family began assembling in 1971; today it includes Art Nouveau works by Hector Guimard, Emile Galle, Louis Majorelle, Louis Comfort Tiffany, works by the Vienna Secession and Peter Behrens, Arts & Crafts works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Stickley, and Greene & Greene, and Parisian Art Deco pieces by Eileen Gray and Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann.
  • East Asian art: Begun in 1941, the East Asian collection consists of Chinese, Japanese and Korean art. The collection includes Chinese jade, bronzes and Buddhist sculpture; Japanese sculpture, and paintings from Kyoto; as well as Korean ceramics and bronzes from two private collections. In 2004, the collection added two imperial Buddhist paintings from the Qing dynasty, dating from 1740. The collection includes the Rene and Carolyn Balcer Collection of works by the Japanese woodblock artist Kawase Hasui. That collection consists of some 800 works, woodblock prints, screens, watercolors and other works by Hasui, including rarely seen prints made by Hasui prior to the 1923 earthquake that destroyed half of Tokyo.
Todi Ragini, Ragamala, Bundi, Rajasthan, 1591
Miniature watercolor painting from Rajasthan, in the South Asian collection
In 1970, Ailsa Mellon Bruce donated some 450 European decorative objects, including a group of 18th- and 19th-century gold, porcelain and enamel boxes.
Pinkney L. Near (1927 - 1990) was curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for thirty years. He was responsible for the museum's acquisition of many works of European art, including arranging for the museum to purchase the Francisco Goya portrait of General Nicolas Guye (long believed to be the most valuable work of art in the museum's collections) from John Lee Pratt. The Guye portrait by Goya is now on view in the posthumously created Pinkney Near Gallery at the VMFA. In 1989 Pinkney Near was named to the newly created post of Paul Mellon Curator and senior research curator, a post in which he continued to work closely with the Mellon Collection and Paul Mellon. Malcolm Cormack succeeded Pinkney Near as Paul Mellon Curator of European Art, from 1991 until his retirement in 2003. Mitchell Merling became Cormack's successor as curator of the Mellon Collection.
Paul Mellon's donations added to the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works and a collection of British Sporting Art, given to the museum in 1983. At his death in 1999, Mellon bequeathed additional French and British works, including five paintings by George Stubbs. The Mellon Galleries closed January 2, 2018 for renovations, with a scheduled reopening in 2020. Curator Mitchell Merling selected 70 major works from the VMFA Mellon Collection to tour during this period on loan to museums, such as the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, and the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. Works sent on loan during renovations of the galleries included paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, and George Stubbs.
  • English silver: In 1997 a collection of 18th and 19th-century English silver was given to the museum by Jerome and Rita Gans.
  • Fabergé The Pratt Fabergé collection, the largest collection of Fabergé eggs outside Russia, includes five Imperial Easter Eggs: the Rock Crystal Egg of 1896, the Pelican Egg of 1898, the Peter the Great Egg of 1903, the Tsarevich Egg of 1912, and the Red Cross with Imperial Portraits Egg of 1915.
  • The South Asian collection comprises works from what are today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Tibet. The collection began in the late 1960s, with the initial core of the Himalayan collection being acquired in 1968.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2021 b
VFMA Cochrane Atrium in 2021

When the 2010 wing was completed, a 27-ton marble late-Mughal garden pavilion from Rajasthan was installed inside the galleries.

  • Modern & Contemporary: The core of the Modern & Contemporary collection was assembled by Sydney and Frances Lewis in the mid- to late-20th century. Much of the more than 1,200 works in their collection were acquired by trading products (such as appliances and electronics) from their company, Best Products, to artists in exchange for works, while at the same time befriending many of them.

In 2019, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art commissioned a large-scale monumental sculpture from artist Kehinde Wiley that was installed in front of the museum. The work in bronze, which Wiley had titled Rumors of War, was modeled after one of Monument Avenue’s Confederate statues after visited Richmond for a retrospective exhibition of his artwork held at the museum in 2016.


Special exhibitions

In addition to the galleries that display selections of the permanent collection, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presents special exhibitions of artwork drawn from its own and others' collections, as well as work of active artists.

In 1941, the museum presented an exhibition of Modernist works by artists of the School of Paris from the collection of Walter P. Chrysler Jr. (which later became the basis for the Chrysler Museum of Art).

In the 1950s, VMFA originated shows such as "Furniture of the Old South" (1952), "Design of Scandinavia" (1954) and "Masterpieces of Chinese Art" (1955). In the 1960s, there were "Masterpieces of American Silver", followed by "Painting in England, 1700–1850," which drew from the private collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. At the time, it was the most comprehensive exhibition of British painting ever presented in the United States. In 1967, the museum also mounted a major exhibition of the work of the English social satirist William Hogarth.

In 1978, the museum presented an exhibition on Colonial cabinetmaking in early Virginia, "Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710–1790." Another first, and one that received widespread international attention, was the 1983 exhibition "Painting in the South: 1564–1980."

In the fall of 1996, VMFA was one of five major American museums to present "Fabergé in America" and "The Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection of Fabergé." These two exhibitions, featuring more than 400 objects and 15 imperial Easter eggs, drew more than 130,000 visitors to Richmond.

In 1997, the VMFA showed "William Blake: Illustrations of the Book of Job," an exhibition that featured a complete set of 21 engravings by English Romantic artist William Blake, created in 1825 and purchased by the museum in 1973. In addition to the engravings, the exhibit included six of the 1805 watercolors upon which Blake based them, on view and on loan from New York's Pierpont Morgan Library. Also on view were a complete set of the artist's preliminary drawings from the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University and the "New Zealand" set of copies of Blake's engravings from the Yale Center for British Art.

In 1999, the museum presented "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," an exhibition assembled from the renowned collection of the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. Nearly a quarter of a million people saw the show in Richmond. It was one of the largest exhibitions of Egyptian art ever to tour the United States.

In 2011, VMFA was one of seven museums worldwide chosen to exhibit one hundred seventy-six paintings from the personal collection of Pablo Picasso. The exhibit was held from February 19 – May 15, 2011 in ten galleries of the newly renovated museum. Director Alex Nyerges noted: "An exhibition this monumental is extremely rare, especially one that spans the entire career of a figure who many consider the most influential, innovative and creative artist of the 20th century." The collection of paintings was from a permanent collection housed in the Musée Picasso, then under renovation.

The VMFA is a member of the French Regional & American Museums Exchange (FRAME).

Education and programs

The Office of Statewide Partnerships delivered programs and exhibitions throughout the commonwealth via a voluntary network of more than 350 nonprofit institutions (museums, galleries, art organizations, schools, community colleges, colleges and universities). Through this program, the museum offered crated exhibitions, arts-related audiovisual programs, symposia, lectures, conferences and workshops by visual and performing artists. The traveling artmobile program, tailored to help students meet the state's Standards of Learning, was also included.

VMFA has offered in-house educational programs that are supported by multiple specialized studios and on-site exhibition space. These have included courses in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, fashion, digital arts, and mixed media.

Group highlights tours are offered daily. K-12 group tours are also offered, incorporating the Virginia Standards of Learning. All college student tours of VMFA's permanent collection — guided and self-directed — are free. Tours can be requested online.

VMFA's ARTshare is a multiyear digital initiative to expand the museum's digital outreach and make its collection more accessible.

VMFA established a Fellowship Program in 1940 which, by 2011, had delivered grants in excess of $5 million with 1,250 awards to Virginia artists since the program's inception. The fellowship funds come from a privately endowed fund administered by VMFA. The Fellowship Program was initially funded by the late John Lee Pratt of Fredericksburg (the husband of Lillian Pratt, donor of the museum's Fabergé collection). By 2011, fellowships were primarily funded through the Pratt endowment and supplemented by gifts from the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation and the J. Warwick McClintic Jr. Scholarship Fund. Notable recipients of VMFA fellowship grants include Vince Gilligan, Emmet Gowin, David Freed, Laura Pharis, Richard Carlyon, and Nell Blaine.

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