Alexandria looks to Virginia art museum for its waterfront plans


The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has more than 33,000 pieces. (Aimee Koch Grindon/Photo by Aimee Koch Grindon, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts )

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reached more than 1 million people last year, through visits to its 14-acre campus in Richmond, educational programs and traveling exhibitions at partner institutions throughout the commonwealth. Some 37,000 households have museum memberships.

But the institution is still trying to make inroads in Northern Virginia, and with the coming sale of two industrial warehouses in Old Town Alexandria, the museum may have found the right opportunity.

For months, museum leaders have been in discussions with District developer CityInterests and Alexandria officials about the possibility of opening a VMFA outpost at what is now the north terminal of Robinson Warehouse, one of two warehouses that served for decades as receiving locations for pulp and newsprint for The Washington Post, but which now, like the newspaper, are being sold by their longtime parent company.

Alex Nyerges, the museum’s director, said he is no rush to expand. The museum is an agency of the commonwealth, and in Richmond it enjoys 640,000 square feet among seven buildings, including a 165,000-square-foot expansion it added in 2010, 135,000 square feet of which houses its American Art and Art Deco and Art Nouveau collections. (By comparison, the Hirshorn Museum, on the National Mall, has 60,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space.) Last year, the VMFA unveiled a $200 million renovation of its East Asian Gallery, featuring sculpture, painting and textiles from China, Japan and Korea.

In all, the museum’s collection has more than 33,000 pieces and it is open for free every day of the year. Nyerges said it is the ninth-largest comprehensive art museum in the country.

But he is not satisfied with its reach in the suburbs close to Washington.

“We’ve been working on the Northern Virginia question,” Nyerges said. “We’ve had conversations with a ton of people in Northern Virginia.”

Among them are Alexandria officials, who were thwarted in their roughly year-long attempt to get the Corcoran Gallery of Art to relocate from the District to the city’s evolving waterfront area. As the vision of landing the Corcoran faded with the museum staying put in D.C., stakeholders in Alexandria pivoted to the VMFA as an alternative. The warehouses sit amid a patchwork of parks, low-rise office buildings, town houses, shops and restaurants, and city officials consider the sites’ redevelopment critical to fulfilling a new vision for the area.

Nyerges and Alan R. Novak, co-founder and partner at CityInterests, have been discussing how to include a VMFA gallery as part of a mixed-use development that would replace the North Terminal warehouse. A partnership between developers EYA, a home and condominium builder, and the JBG Cos. is under contract to purchase the South Terminal.

Nyerges calls the Alexandria talks preliminary, and when Robinson Terminal’s owner disclosed recently that it had agreed to a contract to sell the South Terminal to CityInterests, the museum was not named as partner. “This isn’t even a cart before the horse. I’m not sure the horse is born yet,” Nyerges said.

Nyerges said the museum is working on its 2020 strategic plan, and providing greater services to Virginia’s Washington suburbs will be a priority. He said he had been in discussions with other developers and officials in Northern Virginia, including in Tysons Corner, in part because he doesn’t see an existing institution in the area that could serve as a viable partner. “There is not a single facility in Northern Virginia that has the size, the climate control and the capacity to handle the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and that’s a dilemma,” he said. “What the Washington metro region doesn’t have is a comprehensive, encyclopedic art museum.”

But he said adding new space was an extremely deliberative process. “For us to find the ideal location, if it were a real facility, would take a lot of close examination,” he said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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