Gallery Talk Sheds Light on Museum Practices, Art and Artists


To many, the operations at large art museums are a mystery. How do these institutions purchase art? What works of art are most important? And, why are some of the works they purchase even considered art? Robin Nicholson, deputy director for arts and education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond shed light on these questions and delved into the exhibit, "Van, Gogh, Lichtenstein, Whistler: Masterpieces of World Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts" at a free gallery talk hosted by Piedmont Arts.

Opened during the Great Depression, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was created to house the Commonwealth's collection of public art, which was begun in 1919 with the gift of 50 paintings from prominent judge and politician John Barton Payne. The purpose of the museum was to provide the citizens of the Commonwealth with a rich selection of world art. "Today, we have the largest collection of any state art museum in the nation, and I like to think, the best," said Nicholson.

Though the VMFA's collection has grown from 50 works to over 30,000 pieces in its 75-year existence, the museum has never used state money to purchase artwork. Nicholson noted that all accessions the museum purchases are "made with privately donated funds."

In fact, Nicholson revealed, the museum recently was the recipient of a $70 million gift from the Arthur Graham and Margaret Branch Glasgow Trust, which will be placed in a restricted endowment for the acquisition of new art and to support the recently completed expansion of the facility. The Glasgow Trust marks the largest cash gift in the history of the VMFA.

Nicholson, an art historian, also provided interesting background on many of the artists whose work is on display at Piedmont Arts. He pointed out that Whistler, who is beloved by many for his haunting portrait of his mother, might be the most historically radical artist in the exhibit. The artist's three etchings, which appear much tamer than other works that hang near by – like Norman Lewis's jarring "Post Mortem," inspired by the Civil Rights Movement – were considered almost untouchable at the time of their creation. In 1877, art critic John Ruskin condemned Whistler's work, "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The falling Rocket," an ethereal depiction of fireworks in the night sky. Ruskin panned the painting for its perceived impudence and referred to Whistler as a coxcomb for his belief in the ideology of "art for art's sake," a ridiculous notion to many in the heyday of the Realist movement. Ruskin's comments and the lawsuit Whistler filed as a result, created a general dislike of the artist for many years. In the end, though, Whistler is remembered for championing the cause of creating art with the intention of pleasing the spirit. And, it was this notion that greatly impacted all artistic movements that followed, including the Pop Art movement of the 1960s.

A prime piece from this movement, "Still Life with Folded Sheets" by Roy Lichtenstein embodies the same spirit of Whistler's work, though visually it is much removed. "Andy Warhol is perhaps the most well-known of the Pop artists," said Nicholson, "but Lichtenstein really found a niche that worked for him, as well." Lichtenstein is best known for enlarging scenes from comic books to epic proportions, an idea seen as inventive to some and questionable to others. "What makes something like this art?" asked an audience member during Nicholson's talk. "Well," Nicholson explained, "the art world is tricky." What makes a piece a work of art often depends on who is willing to take up the artist's or work's cause and promote it to the powers that be as important and worthwhile. With Modern and Contemporary art a piece's value is no longer based solely on artistic ability or how pleasing it is to the eye. "It's very likely that an artist can have no training or education in art and be successful," said Nicholson. "It becomes a matter of 'it’s art because someone says it is'." Though daunting, this idea shouldn't be a discouragement to art lovers or those seeking to attain knowledge of Modern and Contemporary art, Nicholson noted. What truly matters in art is that we find pieces that move us personally through their sentiment, their color or shapes, their sense of nostalgia, their beautiful renderings or any reason imaginable.

Van, Gogh, Lichtenstein, Whistler: Masterpieces of World Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will be on display in the Piedmont Arts galleries through October 1, 2011.

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