Museum at a Crossroad 

New report advises VMFA on its next steps.

click to enlarge The black tie preview and dinner gala from Oct. 14, 2014 to kick off "Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The black tie preview and dinner gala from Oct. 14, 2014 to kick off "Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing."

The future of the city’s largest cultural institution, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, may hinge on whether it can enhance its national reputation, become an indispensable educational resource and find millions of dollars in financial support beyond Richmond.

That advice comes in a new strategic plan for the museum conducted by TDC of Boston, one of the nation’s oldest consulting companies for nonprofits.

The report, provided to Style, is the second study the museum has commissioned recently. The other, by Chmura Economics & Analytics, says that the museum’s economic impact on the state has increased roughly 150 percent since the fiscal year 2008, just before its 2010 expansion.

The fast, sweeping changes have yielded growth while creating cause for concern, according to the report, such as employee dissatisfaction and a national reputation that hasn’t caught up to its collection and improvements.

“The transformation, while rewarding, strained the Museum’s people and systems, whose development has not kept pace with the Museum’s rapid increases in scale,” the consulting company reports. “In particular, the VMFA lacks deep financial management capabilities and processes, such as integrated Museum-Foundation budgeting and multi-year forecasting.”

In May, departing public relations specialist Suzanne Hall told Style that internal communication remained one of the museum’s biggest challenges, having suffered within the expanded scope of the museum and an increase to roughly 600 full- and part-time employees.

Director Alex Nyerges says that a recent survey of employees was aimed at addressing employee satisfaction. To that end, he says the museum is searching for a new senior-level human resources manager.

“We need to add a person who is thinking strategically about how to make this a better place to work,” Nyerges says. “We want to create the system, policies, right training, orientation, so we can have a better prepared workforce.”

While the museum has done well at attracting more local visitors to its increasingly lush grounds, the report finds it has “under-leveraged key platforms for engagement, particularly the permanent collection, the campus and technology.”

By bringing in broadly popular exhibitions, such as “Hollywood Costume,” and using outside curators, the museum didn’t help its reputation to equal effect, the report says: “A key driver of this lag was the Museum’s reliance on importing broad-appeal exhibitions, making it difficult to attract critical reviews from national publications, promote the VMFA’s curators and develop new scholarship.”

Nyerges says he’s confident the museum’s curators are more than capable of addressing both scholarly interest and the need for large crowds, pointing to the “Forbidden City” and more recent “Art of the Flower” exhibit. They will continue to seek out recognition from peers and critics, he says, “because it allows us to do our jobs better, more loans, more partnerships.”

But he says the part of the TDC study that could have the largest impact involves establishing a national conservation center at the museum.

“We’re in the middle of developing the plan,” he says, noting that talks with Virginia Commonwealth University are ongoing about creating a program in conservation science. Such a program is offered by only three universities nationwide. “We aim to create the first certificate program in the country,” he says, noting that the museum has 10,000 square feet in its David and Susan Goode conservation center, six conservators, 10 staff and hopes to more than double the number of employees.

Regarding the economic picture, the TDC study notes that a statewide strategy for becoming an educational resource will be crucial to increasing its value to the state, considering the state provides $10 million in annual support -- “an investment equivalent to a $200 million endowment” -- as well as capital maintenance of the facility.

But state revenue has declined in the last three years, and the museum-government relationship is always on shaky ground. The museum needs to attract “consistent and meaningful financial support from outside Richmond,” the plan notes, which is “uncharted territory.”

Nyerges agrees that the museum has been overly focused on the Richmond audience.

“We have not done as thorough a job of raising money from the vast commonwealth at large,” he says, though he notes that big donors such as James and Frances McGlothlin are from outside Richmond, in Bristol. “Where we haven’t been as successful is in the masses, most of our 37,000 members are in Richmond metro area. We need to build membership and donor base everywhere in Virginia and we’re committed to doing it.”


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