Special/Signature Issues » Beauty on the Boulevard

Branded Man

Former director Michael Brand left his mark on VMFA.





Brand got the ball rolling on the new renovation. “It's possible to have a proper front door again.”

Michael Brand became director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2000. He left five years later to become director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. On Jan. 7, he resigned as director there. While at the Virginia museum, Brand played a major role in its expansion. As director of the California museum, he reopened the Getty Villa in Malibu, which had been closed for 10 years. During a recent interview with Style Weekly, Brand said, “I wore a hard hat once at the VMFA and once at the Getty.”

Style Weekly:  Tell me about your role in the expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Michael Brand:  The spatial-needs survey was done in 2000 just before I arrived at VMFA. When I got there, it was a matter of putting together a museum-expansion committee and choosing the architect. We ultimately chose the London-based architect Rick Mather.

What excited you most about working at VMFA?

I took the greatest pride in working for an institution that was thoroughly planning for a future that recognized the value of its collections. I really enjoyed working with the community in Richmond, with the trustees and with a population that appreciated the benefits of having a great art museum in its midst.

My wife and I also began a new group, Canvas, at the VMFA, comprised of people in their 40s and 50s who might have grown up being taken to museums but who might have become disengaged. They only had 15 to 20 people at the first meeting, and it's grown to more than 200 people. They're interested in art, but they're also interested in the artistic process. When some of them came out to see art in Los Angeles, my wife and I hosted them for a function.

While I was at the VMFA, I also forged a link with [Virginia Commonwealth University] — a museum goal as well as a personal goal with a major art school in the same community.

With regard to the new wing, just having enough space to do justice to the collections was exciting. By removing the 1976 wing and adding a larger one, it's possible to have a proper front door again — to be open to the Boulevard. It's very important that people know where they are. Getting rid of the above-ground parking will be wonderful: The half that will be above ground will be covered by a garden. The Robins Garden will tie everything together.

What were your biggest challenges while you were at the VMFA?

In the first 18 months I had three rounds of budget cuts, a sniper, a drought followed by a capital campaign. On the budget side, there were also increases in the price of concrete due to China and increased cost of drywall due to Katrina. At the same time, you only have one chance to do it well, and you want to do it right to inspire new generations of Virginians' pride in this institution. The museum and its trustees worked hard; the trustees are so dedicated to the institution.

What is the greatest strength of the Virginia Museum?

The VMFA is inspiring for its history, collections and extraordinary donors. Leslie Cheek … has to be credited with taking a small building and a small collection and greatly expanding it though the cultivation of individual gifts. Both Paul Mellon and Sydney Lewis died the year before I arrived, but Frances Lewis was still a force on the board while I was there. It's not just the money that the Lewises brought to the VMFA; Frances was very hands-on. The gift of their art nouveau, art deco and modern-art collection is at the heart of the state's art museum -- and that's very significant. If you don't have great collections, you can't attract great curators. John Ravenal, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at VMFA, is outstanding. Then, of course, there's the Gans Collection of European Silver — who would think the VMFA would have one of the world's great collections of silver?

Why did you leave VMFA when you did, after just five years?

The opportunity that came up, to be director of the Getty, was completely unforeseen but was too good to pass up. At VMFA, I had worked with the architect to design the building, and we had raised almost all of the funds. My successor could oversee the reinstallation of the collections in the galleries, both the new ones and existing ones. You certainly wouldn't want to leave the year before it opened.

How would you describe the different business models of the VMFA and the Getty?

The VMFA has grown by leaps and bounds mainly through individual gifts while The Getty has had a large, nonrestricted endowment and could plan more directly its vision of the kind of institution it wanted to be. Because of strong, individual donors, the VMFA has been able to build new strengths in a number of areas quite quickly. With the exception of the photographs collection, the Getty has lacked an ongoing, personal connection with donors, but they're working on this. The VMFA and the Getty represent two distinctly different models, but each has its advantages.

You were at the Getty only four years after having been at the VMFA for five. Those seem like short tenures as a museum art director, or have short terms become the norm?

The longevity of a museum art director depends on an institution. Some museums want someone there a short time to do something new, and if someone is there 20 to 25 years, progress might be much slower.

What are your plans now?  Is there a shortage of museum directors?

Generally, there is a shortage, but it's all a matter of finding the right fit. I don't have any plans at the moment. I'm taking some time to study my options.