Let the Sunshine In 

With a grand reopening on the horizon, Director Alex Nyerges sits in the hot seat.

 

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Alex Nyerges, the VMFA's main man, is anxious to become a museum director again after years of running a construction project. “When I was hired, almost four years ago, we had just started demolition.”

Alex Nyerges says he wants to bring sunlight into the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts-- and he may get more than he bargained for. For this interview with Style Weekly, the director suggests we join him in his unfinished office atop the museum's new building, a space adorned with only hanging globe lights and some folding chairs. With the sounds of construction surrounding us, Nyerges basks in his light-charged new digs. The sleek two rooms and a balcony offer stunning views of the museum's planned garden and parking deck as well as the Boulevard and Museum District.  

Nyerges was hired nearly four years ago, and began his job just as demolition on the museum was starting. A photo historian who started at George Washington University, Nyerges had been executive director of the Mississippi Museum of Art for seven years before becoming the director and chief executive of the Dayton Art Institute. Armed with a populist approach to community outreach, Nyerges more than tripled Dayton's attendance figures and the size of its permanent collection during his tenure. He intends to bring a similar mindset to the new museum once it reopens.

“We use the word transformation,” he says “It's going to be a physical transformation but it's also going to be an experiential transformation.”

In this case, you can believe the hype. The new museum is shaping up to be a serious work of revisionism, a spectacular reimagining of the commonwealth's official arts institution (a place once deemed stuffy and uninviting -- nickname: “Fort Art”) as a welcoming public space. This revision is anchored by a majestic glass atrium that is as much a symbol of the museum's professed new openness and accessibility -- let the sun shine in -- as it is a bold architectural stroke designed to cause discussion, debate and reflection.

Nyerges will be up here on the top floor, in the sunny bird's nest, running the show. At one point, a workman who comes in to fix the balcony door issues a warning to the director. “You won't like this office,” he says. “It's terrible in here, lots of problems.”

“I'm going to make more problems than anything this office can give me,” Nyerges says, grinning.

The workman isn't joking: “The sun is going to beat on you.”

“I love the sun.”

“You'll get a suntan,” the man warns.

“I'm planning on it,” Nyerges says, still smiling.


Style Weekly: What do you remember about the first time you came to the museum?

Alex Nyerges: The Virginia Museum's reputation preceded it. I came here when I was in school and I just can't remember if the new wing was here -- the 1976 wing, which is gone -- because my recollection was that I came in through the front door, through the Boulevard entrance.

What had you heard about the VMFA?

Well, it's one of the great museums of the south. Of course, I knew about the Fabrege collection. Beyond that I didn't know a lot. We didn't have the Lewis galleries, we didn't have the Mellon galleries… we had Faberge. That was my first impression from that visit.

But afterwards, when I was in Florida and Mississippi, they had an exhibition titled, “Painting the South” and it came to Mississippi — a fairly big show. That was a transition time, in the early ‘80's. The Museum added the Mellon and Lewis galleries, plus contemporary and decorative art of European originality, the great sporting art collection, Mr. Mellon's French paintings, the whole nine yards. It transformed from a great Southern museum, which I never thought of as a bad thing but could be looked at by some parts of the country as being somewhat pejorative, to an important national museum with an international focus.

And it was the Lewises and the Mellons who really did that. Fast forward twenty years, the reputation of the museum continued to grow in lots of ways. So what I knew about the museum was plentiful to say the least. Clearly, when you look at the southeast, it is the largest leading institution south of Washington and east of the Mississippi.

Your field was originally photography, right?

I'm a photo historian. Growing up in Rochester, you are wheeled out of the delivery room and you are handed a camera and a roll of film. That was back when Kodak was the largest employer of the city and the state. Everybody — we had an aunt and an uncle that worked for Kodak. They would bring us boxes of film, and we had to shoot this film. It was experimental film, they were testing… every Sunday it was like: ‘We've got to go take pictures.'

When did you realize that you had a passion for art?

My love of art comes from … in the ‘50's and ‘60's, the Metropolitan put out these sticker books of the history of art.  One was on  Baroque 17th century Dutch painting, one on Italian renaissance painting, French sculpture… my mother had them and I was maybe seven years. It was great. They had plates that were perforated, sheets of stickers, so you'd cut out the little Degas dancer and stick it on. I remember my mother wanting me to match up the artwork with the text. So I did a bunch of those. My mother had a lot of art books.

Did you always want to work in museums?

I actually started out as an archeologist. I started doing field work when I was fourteen years old. I spent seven summers in the field. But archeology is much of a science, of a process. I was interested in the object. I wanted to hold it and look at it, so the end result was much more my interest.

It was the summer of 1977, during my first paying job as an archeologist, I was out in Colorado working for the Smithsonian. I just one day got up, and I'm not kidding when I say this, and I made a vow. I said, ‘I want three things: I want an office, I want air conditioning and I want a secretary'…in those days when we had secretaries, you know. I went back to Washington and to graduate school and had the idea to do something different… and that was to be a museum director.

Under your helm, the Dayton Art Institute had great success in drawing crowds. How did  you do it?

Partly we had great folks and a great staff but also a receptive community. One of the goals that was laid out for me early was to get rid of the country club atmosphere at the museum, which was fairly prevalent. But, you know, art museums traditionally were that way. There's nothing wrong with black tie mixers and fancy soirees, but there's a lot to be said for being populist.

For our 75th anniversary we opened the doors 365 days a year and eliminated the admission charge. And those two things did wonders because they eliminated the barrier about money… and, yes, the Virginia Museum will have a big sign that says, “free admission.”

What does a museum director do? What's your day like?

There's no such thing as an average day. And it's really going to change when this project is over. A lot of my time has been consumed by various parts of the building project… focusing on May 1. On May 3, which is a Monday, I go back to being a museum director and not running a construction project. My day is divided up in a variety of ways. One major responsibility is about fundraising — more so than ever. So I spend a lot of my time in strategy meetings, in cultivation meetings, in solicitations and in donor stewardship. Fundraising as you know is more than just saying, ‘Hey, Don, won't you give us some money?'

It's sort of a courtship.

Absolutely.  And the courtship doesn't end with a gift. The gift is the beginning of a stewardship process that goes on and on and on.  And the most interesting part of the courtship is with sophisticated donors who dance the dance. Let's switch roles for a moment. The dance is this… I know you are going to ask me for money and I know you know that I love this institution and you know that I love photography and that I love this and this… so I know you are going to come to me and start the conversation. It's going to be a process. So the business of fundraising is usually a conversation.

The ‘ask' for money is all of 38 seconds: ‘I'd like you to consider a gift of $5 million to create the new 21st century galleries, the programming and the endowment behind it.' That's the ask. What leads up to the ask is a series of countless encounters over lunch, strolls through the galleries, being at cocktail parties and board meetings … because the people closest in to the circle are the most likely givers, the people who have already given are by far your most likely next generous givers again.

Is having a background in the arts helpful to you as a museum director? You say you fundraise - how does your background in art help?

Most of our generous donors are very sophisticated in some aspect of art, and I can only tell you when I go into a prospects apartment in New York and they have works by Matisse and Picasso and Gauguin on the walls, I sure as heck better know what I'm looking at. It's the very heart and soul of who we are. And so for a museum director to be successful for his or her institution, they really need to have a very broad knowledge of art and very deep in some areas. Mine is first and foremost in photography.  But to say that I'm more a little conversant on a lot of subjects would probably be an understatement and then I'm in-depth on subjects like American painting and sculpture of the 19th and 20th century and a variety of other things… I've been doing this for 30 plus years now. It would be hard to imagine not having an incredible depth of knowledge of the history of art.

Couldn't someone from the business community do it?

I've seen other institutions try it and they fail miserably and then they come back to using people that have a background in art.

When you gave us a tour of the site, you kept talking about opening things up here.

Well, think about the design of that Atrium. One of the brilliant things that the museum did — the board of Trustees, Herbert Claiborne our building chair, Michael Brand the previous director — they chose an architect who, in his previous museum buildings, had done great things to marry new buildings with traditional existing buildings but doing it in such a way that transparency becomes a major watchword. The architecture is all about transparency from the outside to the inside — people can see in and see out. The Atrium, as you just pointed out, has huge windows on both ends. People in the Boulevard can see everything that is going on. In fact, I need to come up here more often so I can see if they are getting the job done. Rick Mather is also brilliant in how he designs the building's space…

What will this do in terms of showcasing the museum's collections?

Let's start with the American collection. With the new American galleries, we now can teach the entire history of art in America, from the beginning to the present. And in such a complete manner that if you wanted to teach an undergraduate or graduate level class, all you have to do is start at the McGlothlin galleries of American art and work your way through. We have paintings, sculpture, glass, ceramics, works on paper. And we've got more in storage… it's that good a collection.

We have one of the finest collections of Indian art in his country. And pre-colombian and native American art — we didn't have permanent space for that before. Nobody has seen this collection. I could go on…

Tell me about the success of the private fundraising campaign, which has largely funded all of this.

People have a deep love for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. But it really is the trustees. I mean, you look at the people like Pam Reynolds, Stan Pauley, Herbie Claiborne … the legions of leading …

Suzanne Hall: Jim and Fran McGlothlin.

And of course, Jim and Fran McGlothlin, heaven forbid (laughs). The largest donors in the campaign. All of these people who, as trustees, either with the museum or the foundation or both, have been enormously generous with their money. 

How have the recent cutbacks in state funding affected the museum?

I've been here three and a half years, I've now had five budget cuts from the commonwealth. Now mind you, this is in anyone's recollection the worst economic time since the great depression. So I take the cuts as par for the course. And, sadly but true, necessary. I mean we, as an agency of the commonwealth, have to do our part.

We're not where we want to be when in terms of staffing levels and funding levels. But I have to say, despite all of that, I'm enormously proud of how our people have rallied to be creative, shoulder more responsibility. 

Did any of the state budget cuts affect the construction?

No, we have not made cuts in the building project. Our cuts have all been on the operating side. The budget problem that the state has been suffering through [that affects us] is all on the operating side. The capital side has been considerably less affected.

Why should we fund art? Why is art important to the average Virginian?

Well, you have to look at it broadly. And it's a simple concept — art changes your life. Art makes our lives more meaningful, it gives us a chance to really fulfill part of our soul that can't be satisfied any other way. Whether it's look at a beautiful sculpture or gazing at a painting, sometimes it's a momentary experience, and sometimes it's very fleeting, sometimes you just get wrapped up in it and you get swept into another world.

Take the Virginia Museum. We'll have gallery after gallery, wing after wing, of great art from all over the world, beautifully installed, beautifully lit… and major collections. All free. And because it's free, people can pop in for fifteen minutes, we've got 600 parking spaces in the [new] deck, park in and walk over and go see a gallery. Do that today. Come back next week and see another gallery. Not a series of galleries but one gallery. Tie it in to lunch.  On Saturdays, you can come in the museum, spend some time in the garden, have lunch out on the patio. What we become is a way that people's lives become more full. They find enjoyment, and satisfaction. It's about beauty.

So it isn't just a renovation, it's also a re-branding.  What was the museum once called? ‘Fort Art'?

It's going to take awhile to break that perception down. It's going to take people coming in and seeing that it's a whole new institution.

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