Exit Strategy

Outgoing VMFA curator John Ravenal gives a final walk through his legacy.

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How many curators does it take to change a light bulb?

None, that’s not a curatorial task, you’ll have to ask maintenance. Bad art humor aside, what is a curatorial task, anyway?

Well, if you’d been John Ravenal, VMFA’s outgoing Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art for the past 16 years, your primary curatorial aim would have been diversifying the collection.

During a final walk and talk through the 21st century gallery’s new exhibit “Fusion: Art of the 21st Century,” Ravenal used pieces in the show to demonstrate how he’s systematically been adding more art by African Americans, striving for a better balance of male and female artists, as well as stronger global representation and more work by Virginians.

He’s quick to stress that because there’s no gallery devoted solely to artists of the commonwealth, it’s not enough just to be a Virginian. Any works acquired had to be strong enough to fit in with other national artists in a larger context.

The acquisition of art, an important aspect of a curator’s job, is not an arbitrary measure of taste. To Ravenal, it’s a matter of viewing a lot of art, reading as much as possible, talking to colleagues and looking at what other museums are doing, with the end goal of filtering all of that through the curator’s own judgment.

“This collection reflects my perspective over the past 15 or 16 years,” he says.

Deciding how work is hung and laid out within a gallery is a key curatorial task. Ravenal organizes the 21st century gallery by establishing relationships between smaller groups of work, combining in terms of “conversations” within them.

One group shares "materiality," with highly constructed paintings built up in layers of paint and other materials. Another group he defines as landscapes of an apocalyptic nature, very complex and dense. “They’re playing with the fine line between abstraction and representation. A lot of this art deals with allegories, but rather than traditional biblical allegories, they’re open-ended allegories.”

As he makes his way around the room detailing what he loves about each work, a theme emerges. “Each of these works gives you a lot, but also communicates by withholding. They don’t tell you what to think.”

Gesturing toward Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira’s hung sculpture, “Xilempasto 6,” Ravenal mentions that the VMFA was the first U.S. museum to acquire an Oliveira work. When asked if that’s a point of pride, he insists that it wasn’t the primary motivation, but also looks rather pleased about the distinction.

As for the legacy he’s leaving behind as he moves on to become director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Massachusetts, Ravenal says he hopes museum visitors will have a greater comfort level with contemporary art.

“I hope this collection is a bridge for what artists are doing and what audiences can have access to. I hope it connects visitors with cultures around the world and creates a dialog to open minds up to thinking about other kinds of people and perspectives.”

So where would he like to see a comprehensive museum such as the VMFA’s in 20 years?

“You could make a strong argument for contemporary art having a greater percentage of space if the museum expands, which it will. That’s important because contemporary art does something different than historical art. This gallery is 3,500 square feet now. In 20 years, I’d like to see three more galleries this size. These works here make a really immediate connection with the ongoing creativity of 21st century artists. It’s only 2015. There’s a lot of the century left.”

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