♦ An Opportunity to Build Community in Virginia

Members of the community work together during a sponge workshop at the Anderson Gallery. Image from Anderson Gallery website.

University art museums should provide an opportunity for community interaction while still supporting the interests of the university. Anderson Gallery on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in Richmond, Virginia shows work that supports the innovative and changing field of art that feeds the School of the Arts. The greater Richmond art community has a balance between experimental and cutting edge contemporary art and enthusiasts for traditional methods. The Anderson has coordinated shows with other galleries in the area to give the opportunity to show a larger body of work for the same artist or on the same topic [1]. These diverse projects give the community a chance to better understand an idea or common theme among these works.

Members of the community enjoy an artist talk at the Muscarelle Museum. Image from Muscarelle website.

In comparison, the Muscarelle Museum at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia seems to cater to the interests of the community. The people living in the surrounding area of Williamsburg are mostly older retired conservative minded folks. While still in Richmond, the museums on the University of Richmond campus have a very different community surrounding them. University of Richmond has anywhere from six to twelve students in their studio art program, where as Virginia Commonwealth University has 3,200 students in their school of the arts. Their campus provides a much more typical collegiate learning environment within an enclosed campus.

All three of these institutions are very important but serve different roles within their respective communities. Whether that role is to offer elementary school aged children opportunities to learn or to provide lectures on specialized subjects, the surrounding area would not be nearly as enriched. The Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature at University of Richmond offers the chance to see artifacts from the natural world that are otherwise not readily available for people to view elsewhere in the city. Each museum has a role and responsibilities to their community; what are the factors in deciding what the specific roles are?

Virginia Commonwealth University is integrated into the urban fabric of the city of Richmond, Virginia. With a student population of 32,000, 10% of the city is made up of students in the School of the Arts. Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of the arts is rated the number one public program in the nation as reported by U.S. News and World report. With such a thriving art school, the surrounding community in the city of Richmond is just as active. Currently, Virginia Commonwealth University has four on-campus galleries: the Anderson Gallery, Fine Arts Building Gallery or FAB Gallery, the Student Art Space in the student commons and Locker 50b.            

The Anderson Gallery is Virginia Commonwealth University’s main university art museum. The Anderson serves as a stage for both established and emerging artists to exhibit their work in a unique and urban university setting. A small, intimate gathering place for students and Richmonders alike, the Anderson Gallery boasts over 3,000 works in its permanent collection, along with special exhibitions throughout the year.  The main focus of the Anderson is to bring in contemporary works rather than build their collection. The Anderson Gallery benefits immensely from having access to rich resources in the surrounding area in the form of Virginia Commonwealth University faculty, staff, and, most importantly, the students. The academic freedom that exists in the university setting allows this institution to flourish, bringing daring and groundbreaking exhibitions to both Virginia Commonwealth University and the Richmond community.

            This small gallery benefits from its size, being able to display a wider array of works for extended periods of time, as well as allowing gallery staff to work directly with the artists. Due to its position as a university museum, censorship, an issue plaguing non-university museums that stifles creativity and exhibitions, is not a common issue at this institution, encouraging artists and patrons to visit the museum. The Anderson Gallery works in conjunction with VCUarts, allowing undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to exhibit their work each spring. The Anderson Gallery acts as a hub for all departments within VCUarts, promoting collaboration amongst the two institutions.

            It is also is home to Sponge HQ, a series of workshops hosted by Hope Ginsburg that is supported by the collaboration of artists and visitors from the community. This gallery is also a must see stop for prospective students for the school of the arts and in some ways the exhibits are tailored to grab the attention of these kinds of visitors. Recently, there have been exhibits housed in multiple galleries around Richmond including sites like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1708 Gallery, Visual Arts Center of Richmond and the Anderson Gallery. These sorts of exhibits are designed to circulate visitors through the other museums that they may not have thought to visit prior to their interest in the continuing exhibit. These connections are vital for bringing the community together [1].

            Richmond is also home to the First Fridays Art Walk. On the first Friday of every month, all of the galleries in the area coordinate openings to increase traffic in their spaces. Most of the events and festivities happen on Broad Street around the intersection of Belvidere. This event is a great opportunity for the community to interact with the Anderson in addition to the other galleries in the area [2].

            University of Richmond, located six miles west of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, has a student body of around 4,000. A university 1/8 the size of Virginia Commonwealth University, offers a remote campus outside of the city. They have three on-campus galleries: the Harnett Museum of Art, the Harnett Print Study Center and the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature. The Harnett focuses on displaying works on paper. Since 1996, the collection has acquired roughly 5,000 objects attained mostly through donations and gifts to the museum, but the museum does have a small budget for acquisitions. Unfortunately, there is no permanent display of their collection. On average, the museums have twelve to eighteen exhibitions a year and they work in coincidence with the academic calendar.

            The Harnett gallery provides a space aimed mostly at an audience of college aged to older members of the community. The atmosphere is very sophisticated; pristine and quiet almost as if the presence of a child would be a tragedy.  There isn’t much aimed for children or programs aimed for that age group. The work that they show is not marketable of a grade school level nor could it really be used for a school tour because of the content.  Although, the Harnett does host a great deal of gallery talks and opportunities for shows of student work.  Because their studio art department is so small, it offers the students the chance to build their resumes as far as shows go. 

            The Lara Robins Gallery of Design from Nature has a very different tone. This playful museum is a collection of objects that originated to give the people of Richmond the opportunity to see various biological artifacts that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to see. The hodge-podge exhibit cases are full of thousands of objects that many school groups come to see. This gallery interacts a lot with students who are studying geology and biology. The staff tailors tours to the groups needs to meet various Standards of Learning, a Virginia State test administered to grade school students. This is the most public friendly gallery and even offers different activities available for parents to download and have their children bring on their visit. The different programs offered at University of Richmond’s galleries are always free, which is an important detail when hoping to increase community interaction.

            University art museums should be encouraging interaction between the university and the community. By making programs available for various age groups, the appeal of the museum reaches a broader audience. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is doing a spectacular job at engaging the community across the board. Their exhibits are appealing to people of any age for a number of reasons. Accessibility is another important factor in community involvement. The content should be able to be understood by the audience on a visual and intellectual level. Education is one of the easiest ways to promote involvement. Most people have a desire to learn and further their knowledge on a number of topics. By offering educational programs, community involvement will be successful.

[1] Ashley KistlerAnderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2011, http://www.vcu.edu/arts/gallery/, 12 February 2011.

[2] A long goodbye, Style weekly,2009,http://www.styleweekly.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod. aspsid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications::Article&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=C9190214CC564F1081256AA43A2E9E45&AudID=307AACC9CB4748F1BF28EC3057EA1071, 12 Februrary 2011.

 Research for this paper was concluded primarily from site visits and listening to talks from the museum staff.


 A long goodbye, Style weekly, 2009,http://www.styleweekly.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod. aspsid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications::Article&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=C9190214CC564F1081256AA43A2E9E45&AudID=307AACC9CB4748F1BF28EC3057EA1071, 12 Februrary, 2011.

Coolidge, John. “The University Art Museum in America,” Art Journal 26, 1(Autumn, 1966): 9-21.

Danilov, Victor J. “A Campus Museum,” “A Historical Overview,” University and College Museums, Galleries and Related Facilities: A Descriptive Directory. Greenwood Press, 1996.

Dyson, Robert H. Jr. “Public Education: The Experience of the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvannia,” in Museums and Universities: New Paths for Continuing Education. Ed. Janet W. Solinger. New York: MacMillan, 1990.

Kistler, Ashley, Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2011, http://www.vcu.edu/arts/gallery/, 12 February, 2011.

Newton, Christina, First Fridays Art Walk, Curated Culture, 2010, http://www.firstfridaysrichmond.com/, 13 February, 2011.