Grateful American® Foundation

Experience the Art of History at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Final installation of Chihuly red glass reeds in the Anne Cobb Gottwald Reflecting Pool of the Robins Sculpture Garden at VMFA EXHIBIT: Chihuly at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts OCT 20, 2012  – FEB 10, 2013 NewMarket, Altria, and Center Galleries - and E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculture Garden Reflecting Pool Our award-winning James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing will provide a dramatic setting for Chihuly at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a major exhibition of work by internationally renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, opening October 20, 2012. Chihuly’s art remains at the cutting edge of the technical and virtuoso possibilities of glass as a medium, and this exhibition will include many iconic works for which Chihuly is known — Ikebana, Mille Fiori, Chandeliers, Tabac Baskets, Venetians, Boats, Persian Ceiling — as well as site-specific installations, taking advantage of our soaring Atrium and reflecting pools. The presentation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is Chihuly’s third major U.S. museum exhibition in recent years, with record-breaking crowds attending exhibitions of his work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2008 and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011. Dale Chihuly is credited with revolutionizing the Studio Glass movement and elevating the medium of glass from the realm of craft to fine art. The studio in Seattle, Washington, which Chihuly founded and directs, is an extraordinary workshop, employing many of the greatest glass artists to realize his unique vision. 


On January 1936, during the Great Depression, Virginia’s political and business leaders bravely demonstrated their faith in the future and their belief in the value of art by opening the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

The original English Renaissance-style building was designed by Peebles and Ferguson Architects of Norfolk. And in the years since, there have been five expansions, including the most recent (completed in 2010), designed by famous Rick Mather.

This beautiful renovation houses the museum’s permanent collection of 33,000 works of art from almost every major world culture.

Photo: David Stover © Virginia Museum of Fine ArtsAugust 2013Now in his eighth year as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Alex Nyerges is responsible for the management of the museum’s recent expansion and renovation designed by Rick Mather; the enhancement of statewide services and programs to fulfill the institution’s mandate as Virginia’s museum; the completion of a revenue-based business plan for the museum’s future; and the approval and advancement of exciting special exhibitions. Nyerges came to VMFA from the Dayton Art Institute, where he was director and CEO from 1992 to 2006. Before his assignment in Ohio, Nyerges was the executive director of the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, a position he also held at the De Land Museum of Art in Florida. A native of Rochester, New York, he graduated from George Washington University in Washington, DC in 1981 with a master’s degree in museum studies. His 1979 undergraduate degree is from the same school with a double major in American civilization and in anthropology/archaeology. As well as writing and lecturing widely on photography, Nyerges has organized such exhibitions as “Edward Weston: A Photographer's Love of Life” (2004), a major retrospective that traveled internationally, and “In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West” (1999), which traveled nationwide. Among the many other exhibitions he has organized are “Glory of the Silk Road: Art from Ancient China” and “Eternal China: Treasures from Ancient Xi'an,” two major traveling exhibitions of art and artifacts from regional museums throughout China. Nyerges has been a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors since 1989 and serves on the Mentoring Task Force Committee. He is a former member of the Board of Trustees and past Program Chair for the organization. As a member of the American Association of Museums, he serves as an Accreditation Field Reviewer. At the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst VA, Nyerges serves as Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. Also, Nyerges is an Executive Committee member of the French Regional American Museum Exchange (FRAME), a formal collaboration of museums 12 cities in France, 12 museums in the United States, and one Associate Member in Canada. In Richmond, Nyerges is a member of the Forum Club, an Advisory Board Member of the Asian American Society of Central Virginia, a member of the Mayor’s Richmond Real Estate Task Roundtable and the Mayor’s Tourism Commission, serves on the Armory Steering Committee at the Black History Cultural Museum, Chamber of Commerce Capital Region Collaborative, as well as an Affiliate Graduate Faculty Member at Virginia Commonwealth University. In September 2012, Nyerges was awarded “The Randolph-Macon College Award for Achievement in the Arts” established by the College’s Arts Council to recognize individuals who have significant contributions to Virginia’s cultural landscape. He is married to Jane Kathryn Gray with one son, Robert.In our interview with the museum director, Alex Nyerges, we gained insight into the strong ties between art history and American history. Scroll down for our Q&A. — David Bruce Smith, founder, Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation

Click here to listen to our interview as a podcast on “The Grateful American™ Radio Show.”

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HopeKatzGibbs copyHope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about this wonderful collection of American art. It represents four centuries of cultural exchange and development — including one of Paul Revere’s silver teapots and stands, circa 1790, and the painting “Alexander Spotswood Payne and His Brother John Robert Dandridge Payne, with Their Nurse,” circa 1790-91.

Alex Nyerges: Oddly enough, the American collection was slow to take shape; as most early patrons were buying European art, many museums began by developing European collections. Happily, that’s changed now, and American art is at the forefront of our museum and its acquisitions — largely because of the help of devoted patrons and donors.

DavidBruceSmithDavid Bruce Smith: Let’s start at the beginning of the gallery that houses the American history objects. What is the history of the teapot and stand by Paul Revere?

Alex Nyerges: This is a wonderful example of how our history as a museum and a collection is tied in with the history of Richmond. This teapot and stand was given to us by descendants of its first owner. In fact, it was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Judith Hays to Samuel Myers, the son of another important silversmith, Myer Myers, whose own teapot sits next to it. The Myers family left New York for Virginia in the early 19th century and over time, many of the pieces of silver made for them and their family have come to the museum through different branches of descendants. Just last year we received the coffee spoons that were probably made at the same time for the Hays family.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.55.04 PMHope Katz Gibbs: Also in the gallery is a fabulous collection of furniture from the same time period.

Alex Nyerges: Yes; we have some excellent pieces. The Japanned high chest, one of the most important examples of its type, was made in Boston and records the incredible influence of Asian art on early-American decorative arts.

We also like to tell the international story in this gallery. America was a complex world; people were moving in all the time, bringing fresh ideas and new resources. Our amazing Indian-made cabinet was brought back on an American trading vessel and given to the shipowner’s daughter, the famous socialite Anne Willing Bingham of Philadelphia. She and her husband commissioned the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and were heavily involved in American politics.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.57.24 PMDavid Bruce Smith: I’m particularly interested in the painting of Alexander Spotswood Payne and his brother John because it gives us an idea of what it might have been like to be a child during the Revolutionary War.

Alex Nyerges: Life was changing for families and children in this period. Republican values stressed specific roles for everyone — the idea being that the family was the republic in miniature. Especially in elite households like the Payne’s, the most important role for a woman was to be a mother; it was her job to instill virtue in her children so as to secure the next generation of virtuous leaders. On the other hand, children were slowly trained in their respective gender roles — either to care for children or to hunt and fish like Alexander here — age 11 — and provide for the family.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 1.43.33 PM Hope Katz Gibbs: The issue of slavery comes up in several portraits in the VMFA’s collection. How does the art in the VMFA collection portray the slaves during this time period?

Alex Nyerges: The Payne portrait is a very compelling image. From the very beginning, the structure of the North and South was divided along economic lines: Northern commerce and Southern agriculture. The two different types of economies supported two different social structures: The North focused on the individual, and the South focused on a communal hierarchy in which plantation owners like Archer Payne were at the top, and slaves — Archer owned about two dozen — were at the bottom.

The nurse in the Payne portrait is unnamed and is virtually cut off at the edges — a strong indication of her lesser importance. At the same time, an influential abolitionist movement was impressing itself on the South — Archer’s nephew John Payne freed his slaves and moved to Philadelphia. His daughter Dolley wed James Madison — he being a Virginian, a major slaveholder from Orange County, and future president.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.54.39 PMDavid Bruce Smith: Art history and American history are tied together beautifully in this collection. Tell us about how you make that happen. 

Alex Nyerges: In this wing of the museum, we are really trying to grasp at the whole picture — the international story that is at the heart of our hybrid American identity. The first galleries remind us of the ambitions and risks and diversity of the colonial Atlantic world — not just the 13 colonies, but Canada and the West Indies and Central America, all of which were entangled in trade and politics and families who lived in different parts of the British Empire.

We talk about the revolution — about the conflicting ideas related to commerce and agriculture and how these gave rise to different cultures in the North and South that affected westward expansion and ultimately resulted in the Civil War.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.56.12 PMWe talk about industrialization; the mechanizations that transformed household furnishings, but that also gave rise to urbanization, immigration, the extreme wealth of the Gilded Age, and the poverty of the urban slums. Our Worsham-Rockefeller bedroom tells the remarkable tale of a Richmond native who left the debris of the Civil War to move to New York and find her fortune — which she did — ultimately creating one of the great art collections, The Huntington.

Identity is a thread that runs through every gallery — who we are as a people: male/female, black/white, rich/poor, laborer/landowner, of English, German, African, Asian heritage. We are trying to get there.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.55.29 PMDavid Bruce Smith: Tell us about this new wing, which is vast and quite remarkable.

Alex Nyerges: It is remarkable. The McGlothlin wing, our most recent expansion, added 165,000 square feet of space and honors the tremendous support of two of our most important patrons. The Cochrane Atrium has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors; it honors the family most responsible for the development of our permanent American collection. We also added 53,500 feet of exhibition and gallery space. It all speaks to the generosity of the state, our patrons, and our visitors in supporting our mission. The community comes here not only because they love art, but because they love the setting — the building and the grounds — and everything else going on here, including our programs, activities, studios, etc. We are extremely fortunate.vmfa

Hope Katz Gibbs: In addition to American art, there are vast collections of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and British sporting art given by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Alex Nyerges: We are always growing; the Lewis family and Mellon family have been instrumental in shaping our collections of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, our European and sporting art. We expect all established areas to develop organically — and become more representative as they do. That’s the exciting part. New objects, new ideas, new stories to tell.

For more information about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, visit

Disclaimer: The photos of the historic figures pictured in the videos have been provided courtesy of the presidential and historic homes and museums depicted, as well as from the authors and historians, and / or are under Creative Commons usage. The Grateful American™ Series understands that these images are in the public domain and have no known copyright restrictions.

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