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Frederick R. Brandt



At some Richmond funerals, where the deceased have lived good and long lives, the atmosphere is celebratory: There's a chatty hum while colorfully dressed arrivals greet each other and slither into their pews.

The funeral at St. James's Episcopal Church Dec.17 for Frederick R. Brandt, 71, wasn't like that. With few exceptions the hundreds of mourners wore black and somber grays. They filled the sanctuary, not yet decorated for Christmas, in silence. There was collective sadness at the loss of a talented, disciplined and generous man who for 44 years was at the epicenter of Richmond's visual and decorative arts world. Nobody was eager to say goodbye.

If Richmond has an intelligentsia, Brandt -- a scholar, innovative curator and artist — was part of it. But he wore his academic brilliance and passion for 20th-century decorative objects with understatement.

The New Jersey native, who was reared and educated in Pennsylvania, built his distinguished career at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. There he established the art nouveau gallery that sparked broader and ever more magnificent holdings in 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts. Those collections have in large part defined the museum and were possible because of the beneficence of Richmond collector Frances Lewis and her late husband, Sydney, who founded the former catalog showroom company Best Products in 1957. In his role as curator of the Lewis, Best Products and VMFA collections, Brandt kept track of a dizzying array of objects ranging from art deco jukeboxes to dazzling Tiffany lamps to aggressive contemporary paintings.

"Fred had extraordinary command of the facts of everything he covered," says Joseph M. Dye, VMFA's chief curator. "He was a walking encyclopedia and knew dates, movements and periods off the top of his head."

Brandt was one with his field and took as much delight at uncovering a find at a local Saturday-morning yard sale, of which he was a regular, as he did at spending big bucks at a Sotheby Parke Benet auction. "He had a good eye for quality," Dye says.

Brandt and his late wife, Carol, were a jolly presence on the Richmond art scene. For many years, a highlight of autumn for their friends and family was a brunch they held on the day of the Richmond marathon. The party spilled out of their cottagelike, book- and artifact-filled Monument Avenue home and onto the front porch. Hot dogs were always served and somehow tasted all the better when devoured in the dining room with its William Morris wallpaper and Brandt's remarkable collection of domestic household items and curiosities — Russel Wright pottery, souvenirs from the 1939 New York World's Fair (which he attended) and his beloved toy banks.

Always aware of the broader world, Brandt wasn't shy about writing a letter to a newspaper or correcting a colleague.

Even with failing health, Brandt was out and about to the end. In late November, he moderated a session at Virginia Commonwealth University's annual architectural history symposium and earlier this month showed up at the gala reopening of the Visual Arts Center on West Main Street. And although he'd retired from full-time duties, Brandt was at the Virginia Museum just days before his death, planning with colleagues the installation of the museum's new wing.

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