SmithGroup will lead expansion and renovation of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

A Giant Grows Bigger

SmithGroup will lead expansion and renovation of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

View of the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing at the VMFA in Richmond, 2013. (Courtesy VMFA)

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) announced today that it has tapped SmithGroup to lead the design of a sweeping $190 million overhaul that will include expansive renovations across the existing museum spaces and a 100,000-square-foot new wing for the storied Richmond institution.

Construction is slated to kick off during the summer of 2023 after a 24-month-long discovery and design phase. The new wing, which will house new dedicated gallery spaces for the VMFA’s collections of African art, photography, and 21st-century art, along with a second major exhibition space and a special events venue with dining facilities, is tentatively scheduled for completion in the summer of 2025.

The announcement, which followed a broad international search for a firm to lead the VMFA makeover, sees SmithGroup continue its streak of high-profile museum projects. That includes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collections and Conservation Center in Maryland and the Detroit Institute of Arts (with Michael Graves and Associates). In Washington, D.C., SmithGroup joined larger teams as part of a pair of Smithsonian Institution museums: the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. SmithGroup is also behind the recently unveiled ground-up reimagining of Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, which is set to close next month so that the existing museum building can be demolished to make way for an entirely new home. Not too far from the 85-year-old VMFA,  (one of the most comprehensive art museums in the United States and the only one open 365 days a year with free admission), SmithGroup conceived the design concept for the planned National Slavery Museum at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site/Devil’s Half Acre in the Shockshoe Bottom area of downtown Richmond.

“The firm has demonstrated expertise in planning and designing dynamic, engaging museum environments,” said Alex Nyerges, director and CEO of the VMFA, in a statement. “SmithGroup’s spirit of collaboration; their profound commitment to the same values that guide VMFA — diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility; their first-hand knowledge of Richmond and Virginia; and their drive for innovation make them an exceptional choice for VMFA’s ambitious expansion and renovation project.”

“SmithGroup’s passion for our institution, including our collection, staff and mission, was obvious during the selection and interview process,” added VMFA chief curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education, Michael R. Taylor, who is also serving as project director for the expansion and renovation. “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.”

While project specifics, including renderings, are not yet available as the team commences the design process, an overview of what’s to come at the VMFA has been revealed. As mentioned above, the sprawling new wing will be home to state-of-the-art new gallery, exhibition, and special event spaces and also serve as a gateway linking the E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden. The new addition marks the fifth expansion for the Commonwealth-owned and -operated VMFA since it was established in 1936. The last major expansion, the $150 million James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing, opened in 2010. The RIBA International Award-winning building was designed by the late American-born, London-based architect Rick Mather alongside local firm SMBW and landscape architecture and urban design practice OLIN.

Impacting roughly 45,000 square feet of the 650,000-square-foot museum, the renovations at the VMFA will entail enhancing existing gallery spaces for the permanent collection; increasing the facilities for art storage; establishing new education classrooms, and carrying out upgrades to the Leslie Cheek Theater, Evans Court, and the museum’s original 1936 entrance. The museum’s former library will also be transformed into the Frank Raysor Center, a new study hub dedicated to photography, prints, and drawings.

New construction will also include the building of a 40,000-square-foot standalone Collections Center building. The addition to the VMFA’s Museum District-anchoring campus will house the museum’s conservation department along with registration and art storage, according to a museum press release.

“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, cultural practice director and principal in charge at SmithGroup. “We believe this is a pivotal time for museums and recognize that the process and the physical design of a cultural entity speaks volumes about its values.”

Further updates on the transformative project will be made available on the VMFA website as design work progresses.