How Does VMFA Buy Its Art, Anyway?

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We recently noted that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts owns an Andy Warhol "Triple Elvis" comparable in value to another one just sold at a Christie's auction for $82 million.

That's right. I heard that "dayem" you just dropped.

Probably some of you would happily trade that sucker for a baseball stadium with thicker hot dogs, or maybe some decent public schools. At any rate, it's worth revisiting: Just how is a piece of art acquired at VMFA these days?

A few days ago, I stopped by the museum for a quarterly meeting of the subcommittee responsible for acquisitions. Below the process is broken down into five steps with an assist from chief communications officer, Suzanne Hall, who accompanied me on a tour with a group of trustees.[Note: You don't go into a nonpublic areas of this museum alone for good reason. My ass would be the one to accidentally bump into an $80 million dollar painting then somehow drag it behind me on the floor.]

1. First the curator identifies a work he or she is interested in and proposes it to the chief curator, deputy director for art and education and the museum director. Then the work is brought into the museum for examination by the curators and conservators. The curator writes a formal proposal for the Art Acquisitions Subcommittee to review in advance of the quarterly meetings.

2. At a quarterly meeting, the Trustee Art Acquisitions Subcommittee views the proposed acquisitions, temporarily installed in a nonpublic part of the museum. These can include purchases or gifts to the museum. During these informal viewings, which kind of feel like the CliffsNotes version of an art history class, the curators explain why the work should become a part of the collection, calling attention to the caliber of the art as well as the condition. The meeting I attended began with a presentation by the assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, Sarah Eckhardt, involving photographs by Russian constructivist photographer Alexander Rodchenko; another presentation by Mitchell Merling, Paul Mellon curator and head of the department of European art, featured "The Visitation" by Italian baroque painter Mattia Preti, a monumental painting in the style of Caravaggio (pictured in teaser photo). Merling emphasized that the museum does not currently own any work by Caravaggio or his followers.

3. At a formal, closed meeting, the subcommittee hears details about the works. This part of the process is closed to the public and exempt from freedom of information requests because it deals with specific gifts and contracts for services to be performed. Basically, they're still in negotiating mode. After the closed session, the subcommittee votes to recommend a list of artworks to the full Board of Trustees.

4. The following day the Board of Trustees reviews and votes on the proposed acquisitions. After an affirmative vote, the works become the property of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is responsible for their care in perpetuity. As Hall notes, "they are purchased with private funds from the endowment, not state funds."

5. After the vote, curators prepare statements about key works and the works are photographed. The interim deputy director for art and education, Lee Anne Chesterfield, decides the priority for presentation in a news release and the full list of acquisitions and gifts is sent to regional, national and international media and posted on the museum's website.

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