VMFA keeps major donors during expansion

Private support is vital to newly expanded state museum

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Print this page by Robert Powell

For 10 months, patrons of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond couldn’t see its Fabergé eggs or the gilded “Large Leaping Hare” from its modern art collection.

But the temporary closing of the museum during a $204 million expansion project didn’t dim the enthusiasm of its biggest supporters. “We have not seen any decline in seven-figure gifts in three years,” says Alex Nyerges, the museum’s director. “The high-end donors have been most generous.”

Their patience was rewarded in May when the state art museum reopened with a 165,000-square-foot wing added to the existing 380,000-square-foot building.  The expansion project, begun in 2005, vaults the facility into the ranks of the top 10 comprehensive museums in the country.

An estimated 30,000 people streamed through the museum in a series of reopening celebrations. Pent-up enthusiasm for the expanded facility was reflected in the number of new household memberships. New memberships were running 1,000 to 2,000 a month before the museum reopened. Nyerges expects the total number to reach 50,000 in 2015, nearly double the museum’s previous high of 27,000. 

Private support played a big role in the creation of the new wing and will continue to be vital to the museum’s operation. The commonwealth contributed $50 million for the expansion, and state money will represent about a third of its operating budget. The rest of the money will come from donations, grants and revenues from the gift shop, café and special exhibits.

Like many state agencies, the museum has absorbed five budgets cuts in the past four years. The $9.9 million it will get from the state this coming fiscal year is roughly the same appropriation it received in 1989. (Although, adjusted for inflation, the 1989 money is worth more than $17 million today.)

Nyerges, however, says he is grateful for the state’s support. “We applaud the General Assembly for providing that money, knowing how severe the budget crisis has been. They understand how important the museum is to tourism.”

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