In the attic of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, there is a smaller version, made entirely out of foam board and dollhouse-sized paintings. It's designed so curators can move art around in it, envisioning different paths through the museum and its collection. But John Ravenal, the museum's Sydney and Frances Lewis Curator for Contemporary and Modern Art, says he's really the only one who plays with it.
When the doors to the real museum reopen in May with the new, five-story James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing, Ravenal's enlarged domain will showcase his curatorial sensibilities. The new layout and tools and, perhaps more tellingly, a new commission from New York art world darling Ryan McGinness, reflect Ravenal's make-your-own adventure approach to experiencing art.
Ravenal imagines visitors walking through the new entrance, a three-story atrium, and being able to navigate their own routes like a jungle gym. Upon entering, visitors can see all the possible paths through the space. Catwalks crisscross the air leading into the museum's major permanent collections, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the new sculpture garden — like the home page of a Web site.
But the first thing visitors see when they enter the new wing will be the McGinness piece.
The choice of a McGinness commission contains all the hallmarks of curator Ravenal's style. McGinness' status as an art-world hipster of international stature underscores Ravenal's fluency with the global art scene. But the artist's pedigree as a Virginia-Beach native anchors the “bridge building” that Ravenal often speaks of as central to his mission to bring art-world specimens home to a local audience.
The 32-foot-long, 16-panel piece will be composed of silk-screened images based on 200 images culled from the museum's collection — effectively a visual catalog and chapter-heading preview for visitors.
Ravenal, who was elected president of the Association of Art Museum Curators in June, has had a storybook career. He studied art history at Wesleyan and Columbia universities before working at the Sol LeWitt Collection in Connecticut, developing a close relationship with the prominent conceptual artist. In 1991 he accepted a post as associate curator of 20th-century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he came to his highly competitive position at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1998.
Many of the pieces Ravenal has fought to purchase and the exhibitions he's staged in Richmond read as experimental and daring, especially for a museum outside New York or Berlin. His 2006 show, “Artificial Light,” traveled to the trend-setting annual show Art Basel Miami Beach. It featured new light-based installations by young, international artists and remains in the vanguard of displaying such work. After visiting her studio, Ravenal staked out Ethiopian-born and New York-based artist Julie Mehretu's “Stadia III” (2004) for the museum's permanent collection the same year the Museum of Modern Art in New York started snapping up her work.
Ravenal's most recent commission is McGinness' “Art History Is Not Linear.” The museum had already bought one of his paintings, “He Who Pays the Piper, Names The Tune” in 2006. Part of the draw at the time had also been his Virginia roots — but the move looks increasingly prescient.
McGinness, 37, is a star of a younger generation that's especially savvy in marketing art. After getting his start in 2000 designing skateboards, he's now represented by blue chip Deitch Gallery and Pace Gallery in New York, and has been favorably compared with Andy Warhol. McGinness is best known for silk-screen paintings that layer everyday imagery — corporate logos, street signs, bunny rabbits — into a highly decorative work emphasizing an underlying geometry while blurring the line between art and graphic design.
Even as McGinness has been internationally lauded for his work, his detractors criticize his work as corporate fluff — or as one Washington Post critic put it, marketing “the accoutrements of loft living.”
Ravenal straddles a gap similar to McGinness' — wanting to be accessible to the public while remaining artistically and theoretically rigorous.
Ravenal's museum idea will try to let viewers calibrate their own quotient of curiosity and connoisseurship as they wander through galleries beneath a dollhouse in the attic. S