Some endeavors succeed with few resources, while others fail with many. That’s the story of the Muscarelle Museum of Art, and invariably the arts community in Williamsburg, which began with a frame shop and a gallery, and took shape alongside a forward-thinking mid-sized university art museum that almost didn’t survive.
In 2002, as the Muscarelle—on the campus of the College of William & Mary—faced closure, alumnus Aaron De Groft was overseeing a $15,000,000 conservation and restoration of the Ringling historic mansion in his role as deputy director and chief curator at The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. That’s when his alma mater came calling.
“They contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in applying to be the director,” said De Groft, now director and CEO of the Muscarelle.
When he arrived that same year, his first obstacle was an operating budget that dropped sharply from $900,000 to $75,000.
“It was demoralizing,” said De Groft. “When your parent organization cuts the budget by 90 percent, that’s more than hard to take.”
Despite the limitations, De Groft crafted an aggressive plan to reposition the Muscarelle. “The vision was to turn the museum into an establishment befitting and reflective of the history, tradition and legacy of our great university, William & Mary,” he said.
In 2006 De Groft delivered, attracting the “Natura Morta: Still-Life Painting and the Medici Collections” to Muscarelle. This exhibit came to Williamsburg as the first stop on its national U.S. tour. In fact, when the Italian firm, Contemporanea Progetti of Florence, Italy, sent the painting over to De Groft, they included a gift for the Williamsburg exhibition. De Groft, working with noted art historian Dr. John T. Spike, was able to add a single painting that was not part of the exhibition, Caravaggio’s “Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge.”
De Groft and Spike continued to execute wins for the museum. They brought in “Painting the Italian Landscape: Views from the Uffizi” in 2008, “Seeing Colors: Secrets of the Impressionists” in 2011, “Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane, Masterpiece Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti” in 2013, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty” in 2015 and now “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting Between the Medici and the Bonfires of the Vanities”in 2017. Each new exhibit broke the attendance record set by the previous exhibition.
“These are some of the greatest artists in the history of the world coming to our community. What I’ve heard is that people are immensely proud of this,” he said.
He attributes the gallery’s ability to attract world-class exhibitions to “a lot of luck and great relationships build over many years.”
During a seven-week period from late February to early April 2017, an estimated 65,000 people from across the United States—some as far away as Hawaii—flocked to the museum in to see the much talked about Botticelli exhibit. Its last three exhibitions—Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo—generated billions of media impressions and prompted people to consider Williamsburg a destination for viewing fine works of art.
Even Pietro Folena, president of Associazione Meta Morfosi, the organization in Italy responsible for the exhibit, believes that Williamsburg’s history qualifies it as the best first destination for its American tour, citing early settlement, the number of presidents born in Virginia and William & Mary being the nation’s second oldest institution of higher learning.
“The museum houses a significant art collection with works coming from many cultures and historical areas, which are not only of national importance, but may also be considered as an important meeting point between the American culture and the European one,” he said.
While the museum continues to demonstrate itself as a serious player in the visual arts world, its community impact is also felt.
Bob Harris, senior vice president of tourism at the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, said the Muscarelle’s ability to attract large-scale exhibits, like the Leonardo and the Botticelli, boost tourism and leave an economic footprint that can’t be understated.
“It’s been great timing for us,” Harris said. “We have a great destination and people want to come here. We know that when we look at the numbers, the exhibit will have contributed to the success for February and March.”
Beyond museum walls, other exhibits excited locals in recent years. The whimsical Las Bicicletas, a traveling public art exhibit based on works by Mexican sculptor Gilberto Aceves Navarro, reached Williamsburg with help from Lee Matney and City of Williamsburg Arts Coordinator Terry Buntrock. These colorful, life-sized bicycle sculptures graced the historic area in the summer of 2015 to much fanfare. Matney, owner and curator at the Linda Matney Fine Art Gallery, believes that one aspect of community identity lies in exhibiting public art.
“Public art can become a turning point for Williamsburg,” he said. “It creates a situation where you get diversity and different voices. It enhances the quality of life. It alters the dialogue in the city. There is so much more of a potential to teach when art is all around.”
And while Matney—a passionate creative directly influenced by Warhol contemporaries and famed Newport News painter Barclay Sheaks—is optimistic Williamsburg could have a big city caliber art scene, Fred Miller remembers when the local arts scene was just his frame shop and one other gallery.
“[The arts] weren’t as extensive [in the 1980s] as they are now. The Twentieth Century Gallery, now the Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center did limited shows. Their mission was to be a place to display contemporary art,” Miller, the owner of Prince George Art and Frame said. “And we did very few because we had limited space downtown. We had contemporary posters and limited edition prints.”
The art scene began to build, and one of the important players was Glenn Lowry, who directed the Muscarelle from its origin in 1983 until 1995—when he left to direct of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That move didn’t surprise Miller, who said that Lowry was, “on the fast track to the big time.”
“When they opened, they provided a premier exhibition space. Glenn Lowry elevated the level of art showing in Williamsburg,” Miller said.
Lowry oversaw the construction of the gallery, hired staff and created programs. What has transpired since his departure doesn’t surprise him.
“That was for sure the expectation of the Muscarelle. Aaron has done a great job,” Lowry said. “Our challenge then was to create a space for European and North American art outside of the colonial context. We imagined a corridor that ran from Norfolk to Richmond to get people interested in a lively program. Slowly, we were able to create a network of supporters that could produce exhibitions and public programs.”
Muscarelle may have vaulted Williamsburg into international prominence, but events like Williamsburg Spring Arts, Williamsburg Fall Arts and An Occasion for the Arts, continue to draw artists and art appreciators from around Virginia and across the U.S. into Williamsburg.
Who would have imagined that three decades ago, Italian curators would ship some of the world’s most recognized and beloved art over 4,500 miles to show in a gallery inWilliamsburg and that people would travel 4,900 miles to see it? Not many beyond a few visionaries. But now with25-plus art galleries and hands-on art experiences, vibrant exhibitions, and colorful public art exhibits, a city once known solely for its history may also soon be appreciated for its art.
Story and photos courtesy of and originally published in The Local Scoop.