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A day with new VMFA director Alex Nyerges.

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Nyerges, 49, started Aug. 1 as VMFA director, and he already seems to feel pride and ownership in his new institution. He says that like the Dayton Art Institute — the museum where he most recently served as director and chief executive — VMFA has an encyclopedic collection, covering not only American art or modern art, for example, but also art from many time periods and continents.

Sitting at the marble desk in his office near the original front doors of the museum, he spouts off all sorts of impressive facts about his new museum:

  • It's the largest museum south of Philly, east of Texas.

  • It has more variety than the National Gallery.

  • It's the oldest state art museum in the country. Of the three major state art museums (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida) it's the largest and most important.

    He's also well-versed on The Oaks, the 18th-century Windsor Farms home owned by the museum, which he and his wife, Kathryn, are moving into. They've been picking out historic paints and wallpapers and are excitedly decorating the house with 18th-century details.

    The Oaks is an integral part of his job as director of the museum. It's where he'll frequently entertain trustees, board members, perhaps legislators. The social aspect of the job is huge, Nyerges says. He spent every night the previous week at cocktail parties. "People don't give to a building," he says, "they give to people."

    Nyerges seems to have the right disposition for all that socializing. On a recent August day during his first week, he greets everyone who crosses his path. He seems sharp and confident, yet friendly and approachable. He's unafraid to change a policy, but trusts his staff's expertise.

    His predecessor, Michael Brand, brought the museum national attention with his Harvard pedigree and international experience, not to mention his efforts ushering the museum through the planning and design of its $122.6 million expansion, and receiving one of the largest gifts in the museum's history. After five years in the job, Brand left in November to become director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

    While the Australian Brand had the panache of a highly intellectual world traveler, Nyerges, also sharp, is more of an Everyman and may be just the messenger for all the coming changes at VMFA.

    "He's very approachable," says board president Charlotte Minor, who also served on the search committee. "I think he wants to get out there and spread the word about the museum."

    Nyerges had an impressive record at Dayton. He managed to keep the museum vital and to increase membership in a metropolitan area similar in size to Richmond, but more economically depressed. He also "was very successful in getting many exhibits that had a very broad based appeal to Dayton," says Minor. "He was very heavily involved in the community; that, I think he enjoyed. ... He also had a great record for fundraising. He seems to never meet a stranger and that will be helpful for lobbying."

    In the 13 years he spent at Dayton, Nyerges' tripled both attendance and the number of pieces in the permanent collections. He brought the museum's collection to more than 26,000 pieces, a little more than the size of VMFA's. But the expansion here will add 50 percent more space to the museum, bringing some collections out from storage. Pre-Columbian art will get a gallery. The American Art gallery will grow and be center stage. The Asian art collection has the most in storage and will gain some room. So Nyerges will soon be leading a whole new institution.

    "I think we're on the cusp of moving up to the next level," says Minor. "Michael [Brand] did a lot to get us recognized. I think we're a regional museum with a national reputation but I think that we will become a museum that just has a national reputation like the Baltimore museum or the Philadelphia museum."

    But all those changes are at least three years of construction away. Until then Nyerges is quickly getting up to speed. Early this morning he examines a map of the state covered with pins representing one of the museum's outreach partners: museums, community centers and other locations where VMFA brings its programs and exhibits. Nyerges is planning a fall chock-full of road trips to visit each of these partners throughout the state, making sure to visit trustees or legislators in each area too.

    He's also bringing his personality to the museum. At an exhibitions planning meeting, Nyerges greets the more than 20 people at the large conference room table. The next few months will be tricky, coordinating installation and de-installation schedules with only a few galleries open to begin with. By way of introducing himself, Nyerges gives a brief speech, reminding the group that the goal is to engage the public. Often curators see large, so-called blockbuster exhibits like the museum's popular 1999 exhibit, "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," as not academic enough. But Nyerges' message is clear: "Large audiences and popularity are not mutually exclusive with quality. Our job is to plan a schedule of programming that brings people in."

    Later at lunch he reflects on the museum's ability to bring the world to Richmond and the state. "It helps to give us a better sense of the world being a very small place," he says. "That's the nice thing about being an encyclopedic collection. We change lives."

    Walking back to the museum again along Grove Avenue, Nyerges talks about his photography hobby, the 17-year-old son he left behind in Ohio to finish high school, and the reason he loves what he does: "It's wonderful to see a child having a moment with art."

    While the museum is slowly transforming into a larger, more modern entity, Nyerges will also be incubating, thinking about how he can do for VMFA what he did for Dayton — making it a vital part of the community, one cocktail party at a time. S

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