John Ravenal, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art, is leaving to become the new director of DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass.
He is the fourth high-profile VMFA employee to leave in the past year: Robin Nicholson, head of exhibitions and deputy director for art and education, left to become director of the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh. Before him, Sylvia Yount, curator of American Art left to curate the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Kathy Gillis, senior conservator of sculpture and decorative arts, left to be head of conservation at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
Ravenal, who starts his new job on Jan. 20, characterizes the departing of the four employees as largely coincidental.
“Yes, the museum’s reputation has really grown since the reopening. It’s become a larger and more high profile museum and people are getting noticed,” he says. “Another way to look at it is all four of us had been at the museum for a long time.”
Ravenal was hired by VMFA in June of 1998 and after several years his position became endowed by the Lewis Family. During his tenure, Ravenal built a strong 21st century art collection and emphasized diversity through global work as well as representing women artists, African-American artists and Virginia artists. Some of his award-winning exhibitions included “Ryan McGinness: Studio Visit” (2014), “Xu Bing: Tobacco Project” (2011) and “Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit” (2010). He was instrumental in the creation of the sculpture garden and his acquisitions included postwar art by Sol LeWitt, Kara Walker and Fred Tomaselli.
Ravenal, who was born in Providence and whose wife is from the Boston area, says he flirted with the idea of directing but had enjoyed curating too much. “Once I decided, DeCordova looked like a great place. It focuses on contemporary art and sculpture and has a beautiful, 30-acre grounds and sculpture garden . . . I’m very interested in outdoor sculpture. Plus New England is a great place and we have connections there.”
Ravenal says he will miss “the people of Richmond and his colleagues” the most and regrets he will not be around as the Institute for Contemporary Art opens. But he is planning to return to VMFA as a guest curator for his current project, “Jasper Johns and Edward Munch” which opens at VMFA in 2016. The show, a partnership with the Munch Museum in Oslo, will be the first to explore the connection between these very different artists and features over 100 works.
Ravenal says he hopes VMFA will continue to hire aspirational curators.
“The heart of a museum is the curators, they’re creating content, scholarship, research and interpretation,” he says. “And I just would want [VMFA] to continue to be a very curatorial centered museum. Where the curator’s work is valued.”