- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

France’s Guide Michelin, the gourmet’s bible, describes the 27 French restaurants to which it rewards its highest accolade of three stars with the laconic phrase “valoir de detour” — “worth the detour.” If there were a Michelin guide of American museums, it would say the same of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Virginians have long been drawn to its collection of some 22,000 works spanning 5,000 years of international art history. The museum regularly attracts thousands of visitors a year — more than 40,000 for the exhibition of Pablo Picasso paintings from the Picasso Museum in Paris, which closed in June. Yet, the institution retains a rather low national profile relative to its size and importance.

Last year, the museum opened the McGlothlin Wing, a 165,000-squre-foot extension designed by London-based American architect Rick Mather; and if the VMFA was worth a detour before, it is even more so now. For Washingtonians, it can be the focal point of a weekend day trip to Richmond or an overnight stay. It’s an easy 2½ hours on Interstate 95 south or, more comfortably, a train ride.

The spacious limestone-and-glass structure is open and welcoming, giving the collection more room to shine and providing more room for exhibitions. A 70-by-40-foot-tall wall of glass forms a window onto the artworks inside because, ultimately, but it’s what’s inside that makes the VMFA what it is.

Its contents stop just short of being quirky. It has the main areas of art history well covered with some good works by Old Masters; but because of the unusual interests of some of its main benefactors and curators there are also some unusual collections of both fine art and the decorative arts.

For example, because the American philanthropist Paul Mellon was a thoroughbred racehorse owner and an Anglophile as well as an avid art collector, the museum has an important collection of his British sporting art. It includes studies of famous racehorses by George Stubbs, who lavished the same attention on painting horses that his contemporary George Romney did on people. (The VMFA’s French Impressionist paintings — another of Mellon’s passions — include works by Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezanne.)

And thanks to Lillian Thomas Pratt, wife of a wealthy General Motors executive, the museum owns what it claims is the largest public collection of Faberge Imperial eggs outside Russia. Until Oct. 2, the eggs are the museum’s special exhibition, called “Faberge Revealed.”

The eggs, made by French jeweler Karl Faberge, are made from gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies and other precious metals and gemstones. At the turn of the 19th century, members of the Russian Imperial family took to giving these jewel-encrusted baubles as Easter gifts. The family was still commissioning them on the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ended the Romanov dynasty — which is why, for some, the eggs symbolize the Russian ruling family’s disconnect from reality.

The museum’s already superb treasury of English silver has just received a gift of 50 additional pieces from longtime New York collector/donor Rita Gans. The pieces date from 1440 to 1845, making the collection, “arguably the best of its kind in America,” the VMFA’s director Alex Nyerges said.

He could probably make the same claim about the three galleries of art from the Indian subcontinent — one of the best collections in the country. A colonnaded marble garden pavilion brought from India and reassembled dominates the main hall. On the walls are enormous stone carvings of deities from temples, rich fabrics and other objects.

For anyone interested in art nouveau furniture the VMFA is a must: The pieces on display are worthy of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, France, the temple of art nouveau. And one can covet the VMFA’s array of colorful Tiffany lampshades, which includes some of the finest examples of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s creative genius.

Upcoming exhibitions include: “Xu Bing: Tobacco Project,” works by aleading Chinese contemporary artist, opening Friday; and “Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb,” objects found in the tombs of Ancient Egypt, including two mummies, opening Nov. 10.

REASON TO VISIT RICHMOND: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (200 N. Boulevard, www.vmfa.museum)

DINING: The VMFA’s restaurant, Amuse, serves lunch and dinner. The cuisine is American contemporary, and the restaurant serves Virginia wines made exclusively for the museum. (www.vmfa.museum). Acacia (www.acaciarestaurant.com), widely acclaimed as one of the finest restaurants in the city.

ACCOMMODATIONS: There’s a wide range of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts close to VMFA. At the top end there’s the five-star Jefferson Hotel (www.jeffersonhotel.com). More modest accommodation includes the Clarion Hotel Central (804/359-9441).

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: The nearby Virginia Historical Society (428 N.Boulevard, www.vahistorical.org), established in 1831, has a collection of paintings, photographs, documents and artifacts that tell the story of the state.

More visitor information can be found at the Richmond Tourist Office, visitrichmondva.com.

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