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museums: Museumorphosis

Richmond's premier art museum embarks on an ambitious expansion.


The design by Rick Mather Architects, a London-based firm, will probably be announced at press functions on both sides of the Atlantic — not just here, but also at London's glorious Victoria and Albert Museum. Since art museums fashioned by boldfaced architects are now on par with sports stadiums as the mark of sophistication for many American communities, Virginia Museum officials are determined to herald that Richmond's plans involve international talent. And why not? The museum's holdings are global in scope and ever growing in number.

"Our collections grew dramatically during the 1990s with many important acquisitions," said Richard Woodward, the museum's senior associate director for architecture and design, and curator of African art. "This expansion, the [museum's] first in a generation when completed, will allow the museum to bring things out of storage. The Asian collections have a particular deficit of space, but every [gallery] area will grow. It will create a visual redefinition of the museum in people's eyes."

Gallery space will be increased 40 per cent from the current 76,000 to 110,000 square feet.

Those close to the project are mum about what's in store from an architectural standpoint. We'll have to wait until April. But expect something dramatically different from the approach the museum has taken since it first opened its doors in 1936 in a Peebles & Ferguson-designed classical building inspired by England's Hampton Court (another Brit, Christopher Wren, was an architect). In the 1950s the museum started adding wings— like Amtrak adds train cars — along the Boulevard. But linear space gave out. Then, in 1984, expansion veered westward with the handsome West Wing designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, of New York City.

But somewhere along the way, the original front door on Boulevard was shut permanently.

"The primary approach to the building now is from the back," admits Woodward, "Very few people encounter the front [Boulevard side]. We are aiming to strengthen the Boulevard presence and the urban landscape."

It was only in recent years that the museum was able to think — and act — about major expansion. Until the 1990s, much of the property adjacent to the museum building, including the parking lot, was administered by the commonwealth's general services department. Originally, the property was a family farm. Later, the tract housed a retirement community for Confederate veterans: In the 1930s, a home was built to accommodate their widows. This is now the museum's center for education and outreach. During the Depression years, as the vets went to their reward, the state designated the far corner of the grounds, at Boulevard and Grove, for a new art museum. Because it was considered hallowed ground by many, the Virginia Museum has always trod lightly on expanding here.

But the museum now controls the entire 14 acres. "This has allowed us to take a long look, since we are now the stewards of this wonderful plot of land in the heart of the city," says Woodward. "Our master plan is going to look at things beyond the immediate expansion."

What to look for in the April announcement? First, a 600-car parking facility, which will be worked into the landscape and terraced so that new outdoor sculpture areas will flow onto the structure. And museum officials and architects are exploring ways to rework the traffic flow of the existing building while integrating it with the new structure.

Current conditions can be nightmarish — the low-slung museum currently has 14 different levels (not all of which are connected by elevator), and for gallery-goers, the experience is one of continuous cul-de-sacs and dead-ends.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2004. S

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