There’s groundbreaking change afoot at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The most visible manifestation is in the lower-level special-exhibition space, where 57 works from artist Kehinde Wiley are on display through Sept. 5.
The show, “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” is the museum’s first major solo exhibition of an African-American artist.
But it’s two floors up, in the 21st Century Gallery, where the change is really taking root.
The gallery, where Wiley’s massive painting “Willem van Heythuysen” usually hangs, has become ground zero for an experimental new approach to collecting art at the museum. There’s no sign saying so, but the proof is there, hanging on the walls and, in a couple of places, spread across the floor.
“It’s the first time we’ve been so laser-focused on a specific area, or areas, of collecting,” said VMFA Director Alex Nyerges.
Julie Mehretu’s massive painting “Stadia III” commands attention as soon as you walk into the south room of the gallery. In the north room, works by Theaster Gates, Charles McGill, William Kentridge and Radcliffe Bailey compete for attention. They range from paintings to mixed-media assemblages, from abstract works to photography.
The common thread? Nearly every artist on display is of African descent, though they’re not all black.
The focus has been building at least since the acquisition of the Wiley painting in 2006, Sarah Eckhardt, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, said as she toured the galleries with the VMFA’s chief curator and deputy director, Michael Taylor.
“I think it’s understood by now” that the collection has been shifting, Eckhardt said.
The understanding went from theory to practice last year, when the museum put in place a five-year strategic plan in which the collecting focus was placed squarely on African and African-American art and artists.
“We’re the museum of Virginia, and our collection needs to represent that,” Nyerges said.
The state is about 20 percent black, according to recent data from the U.S. Census.
The museum’s collection?
Of more than 35,000 items, fewer than 200 in the permanent collection are by black artists, and a quarter of those are from a single photographer.
The VMFA acquired its first piece by a black artist in 1944, a Leslie Garland Bolling wood carving called “Cousin-on-Friday.”
Nine years before, Bolling, a Virginia native, had a solo show at the Richmond Academy of Arts, a precursor to the VMFA. He’d go on to produce more than 80 pieces and gain acclaim in New York, but local interest proved more fleeting.
The VMFA’s acquisition was an anomaly. By the turn of the century, 56 years later, the museum owned only three dozen pieces by black artists. And that was robust compared with the collection of African art.
When Richard B. Woodward, now the curator of African art, started working at the museum 40 years ago, it didn’t have a single piece of African art.
“There was just nothing,” he said. “It wasn’t something they were thinking about at the time.”
Woodward persuaded the museum to buy its first piece of African art in 1977, a Kuba mask, from the Kuba tribe in central Congo.
Building that collection, too, was a slow-moving process.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the art world in general began to take seriously the work of black artists. Even noted masters, such as Jacob Lawrence, struggled to find mainstream acceptance.
Lesser-known artists, such as photographer Louis Draper, a Richmond native who worked in New York from the late 1950s until the 1980s, toiled in relative obscurity.
“When I was a student, all you could study was Western art,” Woodward said. “I tell students how lucky they are now, everything they can study.”
Eckhardt said that even when she was in school, in the 1990s, the work of black artists was “just a course, not a field of study.”
In fits and starts, the VMFA began building its collection.
In the world of Alex Nyerges, fits and starts isn’t the way to do business. Acquiring a few pieces here and there, he said, was no way to build a collection. So he helped lead the push for wholesale change.
He was quick to say that the shift in focus “is not to the exclusion of everything else,” but the museum’s acquisitions committee is squarely behind the move, and priority on purchases is on African and African-American art.
The curators have responded.
“We’re really encouraged by the curators for their creativity” in finding ways to make the shift work throughout the museum, Nyerges said.
In one meeting of the acquisition committee, there were pitches for a vessel made by a Greek artist working in southern Italy that featured a Nubian woman, and an African sculpture depicting a white colonial-era officer.
“Those aren’t things you might necessarily think of as African art, but they fit the description,” Nyerges said.
Woodward said the two pieces illustrate a philosophical question in art.
“The big question is, ‘Where does African end?’ ” he said.
There’s also the fundamental question of whether someone is an artist who’s black or a black artist.
“Not every story is going to be evident,” Eckhardt said, pointing out the presence of a Norman Lewis abstract hanging next to a Mark Rothko abstract.
Not far away is work by Sam Gilliam, also an abstract painter who is black.
“Sam Gilliam was very quick in saying, ‘I’m an artist who’s black.’ He does abstract work. That has no color,” Nyerges said.
That’s not the case with Wiley.
His pieces evoke immediate discussion on the issue of race. It’s hard to miss the point on canvases that make life-size seem small.
Wiley places contemporary minorities, usually black men, in classical scenes. The piece the VMFA owns, “Willem van Heythuysen,” depicts a man in a white track suit with an ornate sword against a red tapestrylike background. It’s a contemporary version of a 1625 painting of a Dutch cloth merchant of the same name.
“These paintings and sculptures challenge centuries of stereotypes,” Nyerges said.
The plan is off to a good start. Of the 191 pieces on the museum’s list of African-American works, 125 have been acquired since 2000, and that doesn’t include the Louis Draper archive.
In March, the museum announced the acquisition of nearly everything Draper saved, from prints to contact sheets to thousands of negatives.
The VMFA already owned 13 of his prints. The purchase netted an additional 35.
“It was a moment where we said, ‘Let’s put a stake in the ground,’ ” Taylor said.
Eckhardt said the Draper collection would serve as an entry to other collections of civil rights-era photography. She also has her eyes on several other artists as she works to build the museum’s modest-but-growing collection of contemporary African-American art.
“I can’t predict the future, but I am confident that this is something we’ll stick with long after the end of this plan,” Nyerges said. “It’s who we are, and who we need to be.”
“It’s a very intentional approach to improving our collection,” Taylor said. “It’s not just an acquisition. It’s the whole approach.”
He said he wants the VMFA to be the go-to spot for collectors looking for homes for their collections.
“We want people to think of us as a destination,” Taylor said.
Several museums, he said, are “making statements” with acquisitions of important pieces from contemporary black artists, including Wiley and Mehretu.
“But the thing is, it’s with a single acquisition,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is build the collection. It feels like we’re building something meaningful.”