The Capital of the Confederacy isn’t exactly considered the Capital of Fine Arts. But then Picasso came to the newly renovated Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
To be frank, I wasn’t expecting much. My impression of Richmond was based on a few wintertime visits. The city seemed dreary. A little seedy. And a bit stuck in the way past.
Spoiler alert: This woman’s impression was changed.
In a mere two hours, two friends and I were picking up another pal who lives in the Fan district, a lively area just past Virginia Commonwealth University and home to Monument Avenue, where statues of confederates (Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart) and other hometown heroes (tennis star Arthur Ashe) stand along the grassy median.
The four of us found ourselves at the museum in about five minutes. In Richmond, everything is nearby.
The first thing that struck me about the museum was the — well, was it Southern hospitality? Or plain-old excitement that the venue was packed with visitors? Whatever the reason, the parking attendant greeted us warmly. The security guard thanked us for coming. The man who took our tickets at the exhibit told us he was so glad we had come. I’m sure if Pablo were alive, he would have tipped his hat at us.
The Picasso exhibit was almost overwhelming. The 176 works from the artist’s personal collection are on loan from the Musee National Picasso in Paris, which is undergoing a renovation through next year. The VMFA is the only East Coast stop for the show, which closes May 15.
The exhibit was crowded. After all, it is Picasso — everyone knows Picasso. (Though there were those just learning about him, too: I had fun watching children lie on couches and turn upside down to get different views of his cubist paintings.)
“It was pretty remarkable to go from room to room and see a lifetime of work unfold,” my friend and Washington Post colleague Maria Glod noted. She and I seemed to make the same observations — about the many women in the artist’s life and how they influenced his art, and the idea that the skewed faces were a direct shot at the Nazis, whose idea of art was classic beauty. Toward the end of the exhibit, photos showed Picasso on the floor, coloring with his children and hugging his dachshund, Lump. How very . . . human.
And, speaking of human, we were starving.
At Amuse Restaurant, a massive glass wall overlooks a picturesque sculpture garden and reflecting pool that cleverly covers the parking garage. This was no ordinary museum cafeteria.
“Can I interest you in champagne cocktails today?” the waitress asked us. We apparently had targets on our heads.
Like giddy schoolgirls getting away with something (and we kind of were — husbands, children and work), we clinked glasses and launched into a leisurely lunch, the type I hadn’t had for, well, did I mention my oldest child is almost 4?
The food features regionally sourced Virginia products. A crab cake full of lump meat. Mussels steaming in a garlicky broth. Juicy local chicken and sigh-inducing crab soup.
We left the new museum full and ready to check out some of Old Richmond. Hollywood Cemetery, resting place of presidents James Monroe and John Tyler as well as other famous Virginians and modern-day residents, was a refreshing way to walk off lunch and soak up a history lesson. A drink at the famous Jefferson Hotel, opened in 1895, almost topped off the day. Except we weren’t done eating.
Millie’s Diner, recommended by the friend we were visiting, sits near the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, where the night hops away at the various bars and restaurants. The eatery does not accept reservations, so we had to wait about an hour for a table. But it was worth it. The kitchen opens onto a dining area with red walls and travel posters. Inked servers bubbled away about the evening’s fusion menu, which changes frequently.
Despite all that goodness, I could not stop returning to the main course of the day, the museum. Reopened in May after a $150 million renovation that added 165,000 square feet, the VMFA has become a showcase of A-list art, with Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, African works and Andy Warhol all taking up wall space. There is more than enough to ponder, even after Picasso has left the building.
During my post-exhibit wanderings in the museum, I had spotted an intriguing photograph of a tattooed man. “Wow, that’s a Diane Arbus!” I exclaimed to my friends.
But no longer was I so surprised? This was, after all, Richmond.
1200 E. Cary St.
Located in Richmond’s business district and near restaurants, bars and many sites. From $149 a night.
Museum District B&B
2811 Grove Ave.
Small property within view of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. From $120 a night.
2603 E. Main St.
No reservations accepted, but worth the wait for the fusion cuisine and funky setting. Dinner entrees from $21.
200 N. Boulevard
The lunch, dinner and brunch spot in the McGlothlin Wing serves contemporary dishes with an emphasis on local products. Lunch from $10.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
200 N. Boulevard
The Picasso exhibit runs through May 15. Tickets are $20; $16 for seniors, students and youth ages 7 to 17. General museum admission is free.
412 S. Cherry St.
The final resting place of presidents, historic figures and modern-day residents. Free.