A HISTORY OF THE MUSCARELLE MUSEUM OF ART
The Muscarelle Museum of Art was a gift to The College of William & Mary from alumni and friends. In the 1970s, a visitor remarked to then-President Thomas A. Graves, Jr. that there was a Georgia O’Keeffe painting hanging, unprotected, on a wall on campus. This led President Graves to wonder what other treasures were scattered across campus. To find out, he enlisted the aid of Miles Chappell of the Art History Department to conduct a survey to determine what artworks The College owned.
The survey revealed that over nearly 300 years, The College of William & Mary had amassed a sizeable collection of art and established the need for a museum to preserve and protect them. The permanent collection of the Museum began in 1732 when the Third Earl of Burlington gave The College of William & Mary a portrait of physicist Sir Robert Boyle. Among other early treasures were portraits by English artist Charles Bridges of Mann Page II and Mrs. Mann Page and Son John.
Subsequent gifts extended the collection beyond its roots in American portraiture; the treasures in the collection now span the centuries, including works by Hans Hofmann, Picasso, Matisse, and John Stuart Copley. The major benefactor was Joseph L. Muscarelle (W&M ’27) and his wife Margaret, who generously supported the formation of a museum and whose family has continued their support throughout the years.
The Museum opened in 1983 with Glenn Lowry (currently director at the MoMA in New York), serving as the first Director, who oversaw the major building construction. The “world’s first solar painting,” designed by Gene Davis, the noted Washington Color School painter, transforms the south façade of the Museum into a dramatic and innovative work of art when monumental tubes, filled with colored water, are lit from behind. The title, Sun
Sonata, describes both the rhythmic pattern of colors visible at night and the function of the wall as a solar energy collection system by day.
Mark Johnson succeeded Mr. Lowry and under his direction, the Museum was expanded in 1987 to nearly double its original size. Mr. Johnson is now the Director at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama. The third Director was Bonnie G. Kelm, who served from 1996 – 2002, and who recently retired from the University of California-Santa Barbara Art Museum.
The Museum is currently led by Aaron H. De Groft, who joined the Muscarelle in 2005. Dr. De Groft came to Williamsburg from the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL, and is a 1988 graduate of William & Mary. His leadership has reinvigorated the Museum and has brought new life to exhibitions and programs
The Muscarelle Museum of Art was accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1988 and received subsequent accreditation in 2000. The Museum was the first university/college museum of art in the Commonwealth of Virginia to be accredited by the AAM. This distinction is held by fewer than five percent of museums in the U.S. The mission of the Museum to foster the full integration of a dynamic art museum into the life and liberal arts mission of The College of William & Mary and to serve as a model of curatorial excellence and a catalyst for art exploration at The College and in the surrounding community.
The collection has grown to more than 4,000 works of art from many cultures and historical eras. The strength of the collection is the holdings in English and American portraits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that have national importance. Also included are a survey collection of European and American prints and drawings from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, Japanese prints, African art, Asian ceramics, and a noteworthy collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings, drawings, and watercolors.
The Museum collection is supplemented and enhanced by numerous special exhibitions that bring works of art from public and private collections worldwide. These exhibitions provide opportunities for the viewing and study of material not otherwise available in this area. The Museum collaborates on special thematic exhibitions with academic departments at The College and with other cultural institutions and organizations. Numerous educational opportunities are offered throughout the year in conjunction with the Museum collection and loan exhibitions, including lectures, gallery talks, demonstrations, seminars, and symposia.
The Museum celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2008 and in honor of this event, Museum staff surveyed the entire collection in an on-going effort to re-install and re-interpret the major works in a new location in the downstairs galleries. The new location will offer better access to Museum collections in terms of visitation and flow, especially during traveling exhibition show changes. It will provide a thoughtful arrangement and context for the works that will enhance the teaching nature of the collection for The College. Various works will be periodically exchanged for others in the downstairs galleries, to better display notable works for our visitors.
The first handbook of the major works is also planned to coincide with this reinstallation. Publication of the collection for the first time, both on the internet and in print, will greatly increase the understanding of the works for our students and visitors, and will develop the national profile of the Museum and The College through its collections.
The Muscarelle Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Department of Arts & Sciences of the College, is entering the next phase of its future. Plans are underway to build a new arts complex to enrich the experiences of the students and visitors and bring great new programming for the community. This will increase the space of the Museum, allowing it to bring even more of the permanent collection out of storage and to take advantage of more traveling exhibition opportunities. The new complex will also create more performance space for the music, theater and dance departments, and increase the laboratory and studio space for the art and art history departments.