Museum's Big Electronic Sign Miffs Neighbors 

click to enlarge The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts plans to install an electronic sign along the Boulevard, pictured here in a watercolor rendering, but neighbors aren't happy about it.
  • The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts plans to install an electronic sign along the Boulevard, pictured here in a watercolor rendering, but neighbors aren't happy about it.

The museum says it's tasteful.

Neighbors say it's tacky.

But at this point, it's moot.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has received approval from the state architectural review board to install a 15-foot-high sign on the Boulevard — a sign that includes a 4-foot-by-8-foot illuminated electronic screen.

The museum believes the sign is necessary to attract the 450,000 visitors it's projected to get this year. “If you drive by the museum, there is no way to identify that this is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — unless the light is just right” and hits the understated metal letters on the wall of the new wing, says Suzanne Hall, chief communications officer for the museum.

Many neighbors aren't thrilled about the sign, Fan District Association President Barbara Hartung says. Speaking for herself and not the association, she says the sign would be “totally inappropriate, given the historic nature of the Boulevard.”

The first Hartung heard about the sign proposal was from an e-mail she received at 9 a.m. on Nov. 4, she says. The e-mail from Kennah Harcum, an environmental graphic designer with the museum, said the sign would be considered at the Nov. 5 meeting of the Virginia Art and Architectural Review Board.

One day's notice wasn't enough, Hartung says. The Fan District Association's bylaws require 48 hours' notice before its board can meet, she says, so there was no opportunity to discuss the sign.

“Clearly if they had wanted neighborhood input … they could have scheduled something several weeks or a month in advance,” she says, “and given us the opportunity to make meaningful comments.”

The museum didn't want to surprise residents, Hall says. “However,” she says, “we've never engaged input from the community before the approval process” on any other museum projects. It's a state decision, she says; the city of Richmond doesn't have authority over the sign project.

Hall says the museum welcomes its neighbors' perspective on the content of the sign. She says it will be turned off at night, will be placed perpendicular to the Boulevard so it doesn't shine into windows, and won't be as bright and overbearing as similar commercial signs.

“We'll hope to keep working with them,” says Ronnie Evans, president of the Museum District Association.

Museum Director Alex Nyerges sent an e-mail to VMFA staff Dec. 1 that says the museum plans to install the sign before the Feb. 12 opening of its Ife Nigerian art exhibit.

In the message, Nyerges acknowledges neighbors' concerns about adding the sign to the Boulevard. He then writes: “The important thing for them and for you to know is that this signage, which is critical to our efforts to drive museum attendance, will be tastefully and respectfully executed in accordance with our very high aesthetic values.”

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