Who can tell me what collection of art the University of Virginia Art Museum is best known for? What area of art highlights their collections? You know... The Williams College Museum of Art is best known for it collection of modern American art (Hopper, Homer, Prendergast, Warhol); The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University is dedicated to reproducible art forms such as prints and photography; The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin has one of the top collections of modern and contemporary Latin American and American art; University of California, Berkley's Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is the premier home for multimedia art such as cinema and film; The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has its crowd pleasing mummies; Harvard's Fogg Museum has more than its fair share of Impressionist masterpieces (Degas, Degas, Degas); and The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University houses a premier collection of modern and contemporary art (de Kooning, Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg). But what does UVa have that can be considered its signature collection? And no one can answer "Thomas Jefferson."
Did anyone say Aboriginal Art? I doubt it. In fact, I bet very few people know UVa's Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is one of the largest and highest quality collections of Australian Aboriginal art in the world outside of Australia. This, of course, might be because the collection is housed in a building approximately 5 miles from the UVa campus.
Well, maybe things will change... Over the summer, the University of Virginia Art Museum closed its doors and spent the quiet summer months and about $2.5 million on renovating its building. The Museum reopened to the public this past weekend. As a past critic of the state of the Museum, I was excited to see firsthand what $2.5 million bought.
For starters, all the noticeable renovations are in the inside of the building. The red brick and white columns are the same (don't expect a new, swishy, glass and steel structure). Also, much of the money went into updating the climate control systems and lighting (not very sexy, but critical in the care of the art). Knowing this beforehand, I can't say I expected a huge change, but I had my fingers crossed something would excite me when I opened the front door.
First and foremost, the entrance lobby/gallery has improved greatly. Instead of the former awkwardly boxed-in area which was dark and uncomfortable, walls were removed and the space opened up – much more flexible for the exhibition of art. With the bigger space, four large aboriginal pieces from the Kluge-Ruhe collection were featured in the lobby. Finally, we have a clue to what the real focus of the Museum's collections is (writer's note: I would change the organization of the hanging and make it more cohesive). Good to see that placed in the forefront. This is what can put the UVa Museum on the map.
But... Beyond the removal of walls and "modernization" of the lobby, I couldn't see too much had changed in the other galleries: Some of art has been moved around, and the fresh paint spruced things up (long overdue); The collective climate control helps by allowing for the removal of some awkward glass doors – another big help; And, I'm certain the storage and care for the collections is greatly improved (albeit out of public view). So, in my eyes, not much has been done to truly enhance the visitor's experience. I'm not sure the casual visitor will notice the kind of difference that will make them want to keep coming back. The kind of experience the public now expects from a museum visit.
Hopefully, time will prove me wrong. With the improved climate control and more flexible exhibition space, maybe bigger and better exhibits will be coming to Charlottesville. I'll hold my breath.
Regarding the broader picture, could this be a sign of an increased commitment to the Museum by the University? Will the casual visitor to the Museum ever be able to say, "What a great space and collection of Aboriginal art."? Maybe another $2.5 million pumped into the Museum will actually bring the building out of the Jeffersonian era and into the 21st century.
[Image: detail from Limpi Putungka Tjapangati, Untitled, 1980]