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How does an Australian specialist in Indian art intend to guide the Virginia Museum?

The Director


It's a Thursday afternoon, and Michael Brand, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, ambles into the museum's lobby to walk with a visitor through its galleries. He looks tired and a bit preoccupied, but as soon as he looks up at the museum's latest acquisition, a 6-foot painted and gilded polyester-resin sculpture, "Krishnaveni I," by contemporary artist Ravinder Reddy, the anxiety dissolves from his broad forehead.

"Isn't it wonderful?" he asks, with a slight accent that barely betrays his Australian roots. He is enthralled by the colorful work that depicts a woman's head, her ponytail whipping through the air. "I really wanted to get a piece of contemporary Indian art for the museum. It's in-your-face, which is good when you walk in. It doesn't conform to preconceived notions of what art is."

Brand, who is an Indian-art scholar, is clearly in his element. He has just spent the day in meetings, but this sculpture, this art, reminds him of how he got here in the first place.

He has a similar reaction when he stops in front of the museum's new Artemesia Gentileschi painting, "Venus and Cupid," which he helped to acquire for the museum last spring. "From seeing a small photograph of it at a London dealer's office on a cold winter night, to seeing it on the wall here in October means that what I'm meant to be doing is getting done," he says, gazing at the painting as if it were for the first time. "I'm meant to be getting great works of art in front of the public."

Looking at art, learning from art and exposing others to art is the central focus of Brand's mission as museum director. "There is a lot to be said for being a director at a smaller institution," he says. "You have much more contact with the art and with the people who are dealing with the art. Contact with the art is not something you want to give up. That's what makes up for the dull side of it."

Brand has only been at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for about a year and a half, but it's a safe bet to say that his legacy will be a tangible one, not only in the form of the art the museum acquires during his tenure, but in the museum building itself. Brand has the potential to make a big impact on the Virginia Museum as he leads the institution through its fifth, and largest, expansion in its 65-year history. Brand's driving passion for art, and for the museum itself, will be critical to the project's success.

y his own admission, Brand came late to the formal study of art. Although he says he always had an innate interest in looking at art and architecture, it wasn't until late in his college career that he was introduced to serious art scholarship. "Because I wasn't studying art history in high school, my first exposure to significant art tended to be in the original context," explains Brand, who has traveled extensively since childhood. "I experienced the architecture in real life. I had the reverse of most art-museum professional training."

When Brand was growing up in Canberra, Australia, in the 1960s, he never visited an art museum. That's because there wasn't one in the small city of about 60,000. He recalls occasionally visiting Canberra's commercial art galleries with his mother, but says that fine art education was simply not a big part of the curriculum in Australian schools back then. Then Brand's family moved to Mclean, Va., when he was 13 and when his father became Australia's representative to the International Monetary Fund in Washington. "Suddenly, there's the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, and I'm having more intensive art classes in school," Brand recalls. His interest in art began to deepen as he took a printmaking class at the National Portrait Gallery and started dabbling in photography.

When Brand was 15, he and his brother traveled back to Australia on holiday, stopping in Nepal and India to visit with family friends. The trip opened his eyes to a new culture and was to be the first of many visits to that area of the world.

"I visited the Taj Mahal and Mughal forts [in India], which turned out to be the period I studied," Brand says. "It was a pretty amazing introduction to Asia at age 15. … It is a great place to get to know art. My first experiences of art weren't always in a museum. In India, I visited living temples where works of art were being worshipped. … It made a real impression on me, and I think I look at art differently because of that experience."

Brand was so taken with India and Nepal that he returned a few years later in 1975 before beginning studies at Australia National University in Canberra. Were it not for a chance encounter in the New Delhi airport on that trip, Brand's career path might have followed a different route. It was here that Brand, while waiting for a delayed flight to Nepal, met Islamic-art authority Stuart Cary Welch. Welch, who taught Indian Art at Harvard and eventually became the chairman of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, took Brand under his wing, inviting him to join him on a trekking expedition in Nepal.

"He was the one who first said, 'Have you ever considered graduate school?'" Brand recalls. "And I really hadn't — until then."

At Australian National University, Brand majored in Asian studies with the idea that he would someday enter the Foreign Service. But after taking his first art history class, Brand began to seriously consider making art his career.

Brand eventually earned his doctorate in Indian art and architecture from Harvard, where he studied on an Australian scholarship. At Harvard, he was reunited with Welch, who became one of his mentors. "He would pull out an Indian miniature painting in class and talk about it," Brand says. "From him, I learned how to look at art in a personal, visual way." Though Brand worked as a research fellow at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution for a short time after earning his doctorate, "Always my idea was to go back and work [in Australia]," he says. "I knew they were finally constructing a national gallery in Canberra. It was always in the back of my mind that I would go back there and work as curator of Asian art."

That's exactly what he did from 1988 to 1996, building the National Gallery of Australia's Asian-art department from the ground up. In 1996, he moved to the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane as its assistant director, until coming to the Virginia Museum in August 2000.

"The reason I was so interested in going back to Australia after graduate school was because to make work in an art museum interesting, it has to play some sort of social and political significance," he explains. "At the time, Australia was becoming more engaged in the region around us — with Asia and the Pacific region — and it seemed I would be doing something that was pretty important politically and socially. That same feeling is what attracted me to this museum. Being a state museum in a place that is undergoing change becomes a very interesting challenge."

hen the Virginia Museum's board of trustees made its announcement in May 2000 that Michael Brand, an Australian, was to take over the director's post vacated by Katharine Lee that January, some eyebrows shot up. An Australian leading the Virginia Museum? "We were extremely surprised [to find our new director in Australia," admits Jane Bassett Spilman, president of the museum's board of trustees. "As a matter of fact, when we received the list of candidates from the search consultants and we saw this individual from Australia, we all looked at each other and shrugged and said we're not going to hire anybody from Australia. And to tell you the truth, Michael was the last one we interviewed."

The 43-year-old Brand certainly looked good on paper, Spilman says, with his master's degree and doctorate in art history from Harvard. His impressive resume showed that he had received numerous awards, research grants and scholarships, had published scores of articles in his specialty of Indian art, and had curated many major exhibitions both in Australia and America. He had solid museum administration experience as the assistant director of the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane and as head of the Asian art department at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra for eight years.

Brand, too, was initially skeptical about the position. He had been approached about another position at an American museum a year earlier and hadn't been interested then in relocating to the states. He, his wife and two young daughters were happy in Queensland, where they had only been living for about four years.

Brand had visited the Virginia Museum with pal Glen Lowry, the current director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, when both were Harvard students. They were curating an exhibition of Indian art for the Asia Society in New York and came to check out the museum's esteemed Indian collection from which they borrowed a painting.

"I wasn't looking for a job in America," he says. "But because I had been to this museum and had lived in Virginia … I gave it a second look." He contacted friends at American museums to get the scoop on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Lowry, who had directed the College of William and Mary's Muscarelle Museum in the 1980s, encouraged him to apply.

"I thought it would be a very good fit," Lowry says from New York. "He had been involved with several large museums in Australia with several large, broad-based collections. And I thought the Virginia Museum's broad collections, and especially the strength of its Indian collections, were a good fit for Michael. Plus, he had grown up in Northern Virginia and, I think, understood the climate and the people well."

After scores of phone calls, e-mails and a videoconference, the board of trustees finally invited Brand to Richmond for an interview in May. "The first thing I did when I got into town was come into the museum," he recalls. "What really sort of amazed me was you walk in and you immediately know this is not a small regional museum. It is an established, well-managed museum. ... As I walked through, I thought, 'This is material to work with.'" He also liked that the Virginia Museum is a state institution, just like the Australian museums he had worked for. And he was impressed with Richmond's culture and its architecture. Brand has a great interest in architecture, and the chance to direct a museum that was about to embark on a major architectural project was nearly irresistible. "The fact the museum is heading into a building project is of huge interest to me," he admits. "It is highly desirable to be able to participate in the selection of an architect. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of the creation of a major, major piece of architecture."

It turned out the museum's board of trustees was attracted to those qualities in Brand, as well. Despite initial concerns, "Once we talked to him, we said, 'He is just what we're looking for," Spilman says. She even flew to Australia to interview Brand on his home turf.

"I came back to tell the search committee that everything was in order and we should proceed," she says. "We wanted someone who recognized the strengths of the Virginia Museum and who was as interested as we, the board, are in making the Virginia Museum a presence in the art world nationally and internationally. … Michael is widely traveled and has seen museums all over the world, and he has a keen eye for art and architecture. … I think we have the right man at the right place at the right time."

he museum's expansion will do more than change the way the building looks. It will also change the way the building works and feels. The $79 million project, to be designed by London-based architect Rick Mather, will add more than 100,000 square-feet to the 380,000-square-foot building and include the renovation and reconfiguration of 167,000 square feet of existing exhibition space. Mather will also create a plan for the museum's 13-acre campus, including a new parking deck and 3-acre sculpture garden, which will be funded with a $7 million gift from Mrs. E Claiborne Robins. It is slated for completion in 2007. "Any construction project puts enormous pressure on the whole institution," says Lowry, who speaks with experience as MOMA undergoes a major rebuilding project itself. "It tends to exaggerate what under normal circumstances may be small problems. It takes fissures and turns them into gaping crevasses. Patience is essential, a clear mission is essential, and a real understanding of what's going to happen in what time frame is essential. … I'm certain that Michael has thought these issues through very clearly and will do an excellent job, steering the museum through what is in any circumstances a messy process."

The project is a long time coming for the Virginia Museum. It determined in two studies in the mid- and late '90s that it must expand to better serve its audience. Not only to better showcase its collections (large portions of the museum's collections are currently in storage because of a lack of exhibition space), but also to make the museum a more inviting, engaging place to visit.

"One of my major interests in this project, apart from the pure architecture, is to really think about the visitors' experience and think about how, through architecture, you can mold people's experience to have it make more sense to them," says Brand. "The building expansion gives us a great opportunity to create even better experiences."

Mather, who has designed major expansion and renovation projects for some British museums, says the Virginia Museum's problems are not unique. "They have very similar problems to almost all museums that we work on, and that is they need more display space," he says by phone from his London office. "They need to make it easier for visitors to grasp the collection, to know their way around the collection. It's easy to get lost in most museums and suffer cultural fatigue as a result. We want to have a clean, simple route through the museum so that people can always find their way around."

Equally important is that the museum sees the expansion as an opportunity to make an artistic statement in itself. "We are a public institution and a share of the project will be public money," Brand says. "We should make sure we are adding to the body of great architecture in Virginia."

This desire especially attracted Mather to the project. "Michael Brand was one of the reasons I was interested in this project," he says. "He really wants to do an exceptional building. …He'd very much like to have more people visit [the museum]. That it becomes, because of the quality of the collection and the interest in the architecture, part of the landmarks people want to see when they visit Virginia. The expansion will be funded by a 50-50 partnership between the state and private donations. Gov. Jim Gilmore recently recommended in his 2002-2004 budget that the state issue $34.7 million in Virginia Public Building Authority bonds to support the expansion. It's good news, but until it is approved by the General Assembly, Brand is remaining cautiously optimistic. The bad news is that the same budget requests state agencies, including the Virginia Museum, to cut spending by 2 percent in fiscal year 2002 and 4 percent in fiscal year 2003.

"One of our great challenges at the moment is in the face of budgetary problems with the state of Virginia," Spilman says. "Public support is critical to the successful execution of our capital campaign and the construction of this building." The cuts, the fourth since Brand assumed the director's post, are worrisome. "We have to try in every possible way to maintain our services to the public, Brand says, "but with this fourth round of cuts, something has to give. I can't see how we can maintain all of our current services. We have to look at things like operating hours and various programs. … It's going to be very, very, very difficult and not much fun. The main thing is going to be maintaining the momentum with the building project." Soliciting private contributions for the expansion is one of Brand's most important duties. "To fund-raise successfully it has to be personal," he says. "You can't just sit in your office and think, 'When are these bloody Virginians going to start sending their checks in?' When I first got here I gave the fund-raising people a commitment that I would give the capital campaign a day and a half a week. And just as important is sitting down and thinking. You won't raise money without good ideas."

ou can tell that Brand spends a lot of time thinking. He comes across as a low-key, unassuming, cerebral kind of guy. He pauses before answering questions, thinking his answers through before speaking. His voice is steady and finely modulated. He doesn't exactly gush.

"Everything he does is with intelligence," says Joseph M. Dye III, the museum's E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter curator of South Asian and Islamic art. "… It is not just somebody proving that they're important. Whatever he does you can rest assured it will be thoroughly considered and it will be a rational and effective solution. That is really wonderful — that someone is up there thinking. Brand doesn't seem entirely comfortable in the spotlight, and though he certainly possesses the confidence necessary to lead an institution such as the Virginia Museum, he does not have an inflated ego. He seems genuinely nice, like someone who is easy to get along with. Perhaps because of his youthful appearance — he's only 43 — it's easy to call him by his first name. Though he has earned the title "Dr. Brand," it just doesn't seem to fit.

"He's very charming and incredibly polite," Dye says. "He's one of the most considerate people I've met in years. He's very good with people." "He exemplifies tremendous integrity and honesty and openness, and is conscientious and dedicated," adds Spilman of the board of trustees. " … And I would say in addition to all of the above, he is a thoroughly charming and engaging individual." Longtime friend Lowry laughs when he hears how others have described Brand. When asked to describe him himself, Lowry echoes the others. "Exceedingly polite and charming," he says. "He is a very thoughtful, soft-spoken man, but behind that is a driving ambition and passion for the arts, and I think he's someone who understands how to deal with and work with people. …He comes across as laid-back, but in fact he's not — he's driven."

Brand's wife, Tina, has made quite an impression as well, becoming a sort of First Lady of the Virginia Museum. She recently planned the menus and designed the flowers for the receptions that were held in conjunction with the opening of the museum's India exhibition, and she often entertains trustees and museum patrons in the couple's museum-owned Windsor Farms home, "The Oaks."

"Tina Brand is a superb ambassador for the museum," Spilman says. "When we hired Michael Brand she was definitely a plus, so we really got two for one."

Brand's colleagues say he is full of energy and responds quickly to problems or inquiries. The museum's curators praise him for his taste in art. "Since he's been here the acquisitions have been really spectacular," says Dye. "They are a really important part of his program. He loves works of art, he's very interested in them, and he's interested in what the museum buys. But he's not overbearing with the curators, he's respectful, he listens." Ask Brand to name his favorite artists and you'll see how wide his interests are, although all he names are contemporary: video artists Bill Viola and Tony Oursler; Chinese artists Xu Bing and Cai Guo Quong; and Australian Fiona Hall.

"Michael takes a very broad view of the history of world art," says African art curator Woodward. "I really appreciate that and think it is perfectly in accordance with the mission of this museum. He has a very good eye, really. If you look at the acquisitions that are being made this year — the quality level has really been impressive."

Again, it all comes back to the art.

"I love exploring the museum," Brand says, as he stops in the museum's ancient-art galleries to peruse a group of small stone sculptures. "You're meant to come here and think about things, to try to ask yourself why you like one thing more than another. Sometimes it will take you a while to get it, and some things you will never like. What [the museum] wants to do in a way is to be something like a public intellectual, putting ideas and things out there to enrich the debate of ideas and things."

Brand says that now, more than ever, in the wake of Sept. 11, "people want to be able to come in and contemplate." "You can't expect art to answer all questions," he continues, "but where a museum can be really good is they can show that art is one of the ways of asking the questions."

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