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VMFA announces international firm SmithGroup will design museum’s new $190 million wing

The firm’s portfolio features several national museum projects including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collections and Conservation Center in Maryland, the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, as well as the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Trevor Dickerson

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Following its recent Board of Trustees meeting, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) announced that the integrated design firm SmithGroup has been selected to design the museum’s upcoming $190 million expansion and renovation project. The decision follows a comprehensive international search.

SmithGroup will be charged with designing a new wing at VMFA with state-of-the-art gallery spaces for African art, photography, and 21st-century art, as well as a second major exhibition space and a special events space with dining facilities that can seat up to 500 guests on the garden-level ground floor. The new wing will also provide a welcoming entrance to and from the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden to encourage visitors to enter and enjoy the museum.

In addition to the new wing, large parts of the existing building will be renovated to include improved gallery spaces for the permanent collection, increased facilities for art storage, new education classrooms, and upgrades to the Leslie Cheek Theater, Evans Court, and the 1936 Entrance. The expansion and renovation project will also support the museum’s commitment to enhancing the visitor experience and the institution’s strategic plan which calls for offering a range of curator-led, visitor-centered art experiences that engage, captivate and delight a diverse audience.

“We are thrilled to have SmithGroup on board and excited to collaborate with their visionary team on this exciting building project,” said Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s Director and CEO. “The firm has demonstrated expertise in planning and designing dynamic, engaging museum environments. SmithGroup’s spirit of collaboration; its profound commitment to the same values that guide VMFA — diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; its first-hand knowledge of Richmond and Virginia; and its drive for innovation make them an exceptional choice for VMFA’s ambitious expansion and renovation project.”

An award-winning international firm, SmithGroup’s extensive portfolio features several impressive national museum projects including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collections and Conservation Center in Maryland, the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, as well as the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. SmithGroup is currently designing the re-envisioned Thomas Gilcrease Museum of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The firm’s work is recognized locally as well. SmithGroup designed the concept for the National Slavery Museum at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site/Devil’s Half Acre for the City of Richmond.

“VMFA’s mission for education throughout the Commonwealth and the region; its commitment to displaying and preserving its extraordinary collections, including African and African American Art; its dedication to advancing Black and women artists; and its culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility resonated with each of us on the project team,” said Jamē Anderson, SmithGroup’s Cultural Practice Director and Principal in Charge. “We believe this is a pivotal time for museums and recognize that the process and the physical design of a cultural entity speak volumes about its values.”

This marks the fifth expansion project VMFA has undertaken since the museum’s opening in 1936. Currently, the museum, one of the top ten comprehensive art museums in the U.S., comprises 650,000 square feet. The latest expansion plans call for a new wing that will provide an additional 100,000 square feet of total space, as well as a new stand-alone Collections Center building to be located on VMFA’s campus. This new facility of 40,000 square feet will house the museum’s conservation department, as well as registration and art storage. In addition to new construction, the museum will carry out approximately 45,000 square feet of renovations to the existing building to create a seamless visitor experience and meet the museum’s current and future needs for the permanent collection. The renovations include transforming the museum’s former library into the Frank Raysor Center, a dedicated photography, prints, and drawings study center, comprising a study room for scholars, curators, and professors, and students from local colleges and universities, as well as matting and framing, and compact storage for the museum’s growing collection of nearly 26,000 works on paper.

“SmithGroup presented us with an inspired proposal that dovetailed beautifully with our desire to reimagine and transform the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,” said Michael R. Taylor, VMFA’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education, who is the Project Director for the expansion and renovation project. “SmithGroup’s passion for our institution, including our collection, staff, and mission, was obvious during the selection and interview process. Their blend of technical expertise balanced with their exceptional conceptual ability makes them the ideal design partner and we look forward to our collaboration with them on this landmark building project.”

With the selection of SmithGroup, VMFA’s project will begin with a discovery and design phase, which is expected to take approximately 24 months. Construction is expected to begin in the summer of 2023, with the new wing tentatively slated for completion in the summer of 2025. As the museum’s expansion project progresses, updates will be available at www.VMFA.museum.

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Trevor Dickerson is the Editor and Co-Founder of RVAHub.