May 18, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


How Does the VMFA Rank? 

Michael Brand has never been one to underestimate his museum. In 2003 he referred to the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston when putting the VMFA in context for the New York Times.

While there's no argument that the museum is a well-respected regional institution, Brand pursues a loftier ranking. Even the recent push to use the initials VMFA is reminiscent of the Museum of Modern Art's MoMA moniker.

But how does the VMFA compare with its colleagues?

The short answer is 15th, according to an informal study by the Association of Art Museum Directors. Brand has another way of thinking about it: "Our whole collection is very highly respected nationally and internationally, and an easy way of judging that is the number of loan requests we get from American and international museums. We are constantly being asked to contribute to the most important exhibitions. Our American collection is highly respected now; it's just not one of the biggest ones in the country."

Although Brand says the VMFA won't be buying any work by Leonardo da Vinci any time soon — because of exorbitant prices and limited availability — the museum is making strategic buys to flesh out existing collections. And it might be surprising to see where the collections' strengths lie.

"I think for a museum of that size it's an extremely well-selected collection," says American art dealer Stuart Held of New York's Hirschl & Adler Galleries. The American art holdings are an example, he says, although "it obviously doesn't have an extremely [deep] well like the Met."

The VMFA's collection of about 20,000 objects spans a broad range, from ancient to contemporary times. Style asked Brand which collections are its most well-respected. Here's what he said:

"Probably one of the areas where we are undoubtedly the leaders are 19th-, early-20th-century decorative arts, art nouveau, art deco, the Lewis collection — undoubtedly the best collection in the United States, and people tell us that; we don't just make it up."

"Fabergé. We have the largest group of imperial Easter eggs outside of Russia. We have five imperial eggs — that's more than the Queen of England has got, that's more than anyone has got."

"The South Asian and Himalayan collections are amongst the top two or three in the country, which would make our Himalayan collection amongst the top 10 in the world. We take very seriously being an international art museum which collects and preserves and displays other people's cultures."

The African collection.

The Mellon collection. "It's a wonderful collection of French paintings and sculpture."

The Gans collection of English silver. — Carrie Nieman

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