VMFA, the state history museum is spending millions on expansions and renovations
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and its neighbor the Virginia Museum of History & Culture are each at different stages of their own multi-million dollar expansion and renovation projects.
The Virginia Museum of History & Culture plans to reopen to the public in mid-May after a $30 million renovation. The VMFA is in the early stages of a $190 million expansion and renovation slated for completion in 2026.
Museum leaders have framed the ongoing construction as new chapters for their institutions, not just as investments in key exhibition spaces, but also as further expansion of events and programming.
The projects are expected to result in a substantial increase in visitation in the coming years.
Virginia Museum of History and Culture
The renovation project will expand exhibit space at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture by 50%, add a new wayfinding theater, new event terrace, meeting rooms and a revamped gift shop, said President and CEO Jamie Bosket.
“Really, in every way, it’s us upping our game as a visiting attraction,” Bosket said.
A cafe is also among the new features that will open at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture as part of his project, and would be a first for the museum. The cafe will serve coffee, sandwiches, craft beer and wine. It will accommodate 36 people.
“It has two big goals in mind: first, to be an amenity for the overall museum experience, but also to be an amenity for the community,” Bosket said of the cafe.
The museum’s five-year goal is to attract 200,000 visitors per year after the renovation project. The museum welcomed 110,000 visitors in 2019.
The project, which began in fall 2020, adds 10,000 square feet to the second floor of the 250,000 square foot museum. The project also includes a new research library and improvements to outdoor spaces.
The renovation is a continuation of the museum’s evolution toward a more public institution, which began in 2018 when the facility’s name also changed from Virginia Historical Society. Before 2018, visits were around 50,000 people per year.
“It’s an expansion, a renovation, a reinvention and it’s also a shift from a stuffy research organization to one that’s still research-focused but also focused on welcoming people and reflecting the stories of all Virginians,” Bosket said. “We do our best to fulfill this mission by reaching as many people as possible. We felt it was important to expand the ways we can tell the story to be more dynamic, active, and compelling and give more reasons for people to visit this place.
When it reopens, the museum will charge non-members for parking in its surface car park, which will expand by 50% as part of the project.
Bosket said the parking fees, as well as the cafe and new meeting spaces that will be created as part of the renovation, are all efforts to generate more revenue for museum operations.
The museum reported total revenue of $8.8 million in fiscal 2019, down from total revenue of $10 million the previous year. Its total expenses in fiscal 2019 were $9.2 million, compared to $8.7 million the previous fiscal year.
The project will include the creation of a two-story entrance hall to the museum. The space grew out of three rooms built decades apart to create a single, uniform space.
“We envision this to be a beautiful arrival space at the museum,” Bosket said. “It’s a place where people gather and orient themselves, but also a place of reception.”
The museum raised funding for the project primarily through individual donations during a fundraising campaign that also added $15 million to the museum’s endowment.
Glave & Holmes Architecture is the architect of the project. The general contractor is Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.
The museum has hired or is in the process of hiring about 15 new or significantly revamped roles as part of the project. These new roles range from managers overseeing new or combined departments as well as cafe staff.
The museum currently has about 80 employees.
The museum temporarily closed in January for the final stage of the project, although it was open on a limited basis for most of the construction.
Expansion at VMFA
As its neighbor is in the home stretch of its update, the VMFA is initiating a substantial expansion and renovation itself.
Director and CEO Alex Nyerges said the museum had outgrown its 2010 expansion, a $150 million project that added the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing to the museum.
“For all intents and purposes, we were past the wing by the time planning began on the wing in the early 2000s,” Nyerges said, noting that the museum grew its artifact collection by 30% between 2005 and 2022.
To remedy this, the state-backed VMFA is planning a $190 million expansion project. The project, which is in its early stages, will add a new 170,000 square foot wing and renovate an additional 45,000 square feet of existing facilities to create new exhibition and storage space.
Visits to the museum have averaged more than 579,000 per year over the past five years, not including visits from the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, Nyerges said.
The museum plans to launch the project in the summer of 2023, with construction expected to be completed three years later.
In June, the museum announced that architectural firm SmithGroup would design the project. The museum plans to have a construction manager selected by this summer.
Among the new construction is a 12,000 square foot special exhibition gallery, which will be the same size as the existing special exhibition space on the lower level, where the museum holds its paying rotating exhibits. With two special exhibition spaces in play at once, Nyerges said, the museum would become a more attractive place for visitors.
“Special exhibits are the engine that keeps the train moving,” Nyerges said. “Imagine that as a counterpoint to the Terracotta Army (special exhibition). We are able to expand the scope and breadth of what we can offer.
The new wing will also feature the museum’s growing collections of 21st century, African and Native American art. The wing will also include a new special events space that will accommodate 500 people for seated events as well as more storage, among other features.
The renovation project is expected to include the new Frank Raysor Center for the Study of Works on Paper, a center including study rooms, conservation and framing studios, etc.
The Leslie Cheek Theater will benefit from a larger stage and renovations to allow for expanded programming and a larger photography gallery.
The VMFA announced in March that it had received a $57 million gift from patrons James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin to fund the project. He also announced in March that he had received a “significant” donation of an undisclosed amount from Eda Hofstead Cabaniss, a trustee of the museum, which will also go towards the project. The General Assembly approved $112 million for the project in 2020.
The museum has about 240 salaried employees and about 320 hourly employees as of mid-April. The extent of the workforce increase alongside the project is still being determined, but new hires are expected across the organization, from special events and art managers to accounting and education.
The VMFA Foundation reported total revenue of $29.9 million and total expenses of $46.9 million in fiscal 2019, according to tax filings. Last fiscal year, the foundation reported total revenues of $19.8 million and total expenses of $23.8 million.