Chances are, if you're an art civilian, you've never paid much attention to the Office of Statewide Partnerships, or the Chapters and Affiliates Program, or the Traveling Exhibitions and Media Services (TEAMS). But if you grew up in Virginia, you will surely be acquainted with the beloved, now retired Artmobile. All of these cultural programs have lived long industrious lives under the auspices of the VMFA's statewide outreach initiative.
The museum's model originated as a mandate of its 1934 founding charter established by the General Assembly, which called for the museum "to promote throughout the Commonwealth education in the realm of art." Thus, since the Virginia Museum was just a twinkle in its founding fathers' eyes, the services have, each in its own form, been disseminating professional assistance and programming for far-reaching constituencies. And it has actively been fulfilling its charge to introduce Virginia's distant hamlets to art and art education for as many years as it has been a Richmond landmark.
"I'm not aware of any other museum in the country that has, and has always had, the level of commitment and the extensive system for providing quality art experiences to remote areas," Mott reflected, while explaining the visionary arrangement that the General Assembly and museum founders jointly established.
If you are an art curator somewhere in the state, as I have periodically been, you will know all about the museum offerings and have relied upon them regularly to develop and embellish your programming. In fact, I first met Eileen Mott at one of the semiannual statewide Curators' Roundtables hosted by the VMFA. I had recently been hired to curate for the Peninsula Fine Art Center in Newport News, one of the museum's "Affiliate" institutions (meaning we had a building designated for the exhibition of art, as opposed to a "Chapter" organization that served as a community liaison for ancillary art programming.) Mott was in line then to take over the organization of our curators' group, and she has continued to facilitate what has grown to be an exceptionally close network over the years, enabling all of us to meet, discuss and collaborate on exhibitions, while introducing us to new Partnership developments.
Mott is now an active member of the current crew, working to devise the new coordinated, comprehensive approach. Under McKinney, it has become a team effort with everyone bringing ideas to the table. "We are approaching the programming more completely now; it is a more focused package these days," she says. "An example is the multilayered project we are currently preparing on Greek civilization. Or the one that Rebecca [Jones] and Richard [Woodward] have developed on African culture, the 'Mali Project'." "We are looking at the Standards of Learning, asking for feedback from elementary school teachers, and developing limited security exhibits, teacher packets, audiovisual material, and a Web component to augment the subject."
But Eileen Mott's most important, and probably overlooked, contribution is to the practicing artists of the state. For anyone who complains that the museum doesn't do enough for Virginia artists, Mott's own longstanding program is something of a rejoinder. Her statewide exhibitions programs have become the principal avenue through which VMFA supports its state artists. Over the 25 years that she has been on staff, Mott has organized 82 traveling shows for 103 Virginia artists, sometimes collaborating with another curator. She often facilitates the production of a publication for an artist and oversees professional framing and crating of their art for travel and display. "Sally Mann was one of our TEAMS artists with a traveling exhibition that we titled 'Still Time' back in 1988. That was well before her monograph in Aperture magazine came out in 1994, which borrowed our title," Mott reported with some satisfaction.
Discussing the present direction of the Office of Statewide Partnerships, Mott describes a deeper reach into the art audience and a greater push to get more exhibitions on the road. She speaks, too, of her respect for her boss, David McKinney, and her co-workers. "David really believes in the importance of his staff being out in the state, she says. He makes certain that the museum board and state legislators realize how effectively the constituency of the state is being served."
"I love this work," she admits. "This position keeps me in close contact with a community of very generous people ... whether it's the artists that create and lend their work for exhibition, or the curators and gallery directors who conceptualize and present the shows."
"There are two things that make my job worth all the difficulties and obstacles: The first is to observe a member of the public being touched by a work of art, and the second is to see how appreciation and support for an artist's work providing them a forum so greatly encourages them." S