Jeffrey Allison was 6 years old when his aunt picked him up from his home and told him they were going to an art museum. Being from a small town in Southwest Virginia, Allison thought he was in for a long trip. He said he was surprised when his aunt drove only 20 minutes.
“We got out of the car and I had the most amazing — little 6-year-old eyes got big — experience going on the Virginia Museum Artmobile,” Allison said. “Then years later, winning two fellowships, and now I’m here helping to restart the program.”
Allison is now the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s Paul Mellon Collection Educator and manager of statewide programs and exhibitions. He is working to bring back the Artmobile, the VMFA mobile museum that toured the state from 1953 to 1994 and inspired him as a child.
“It is not just a mobile room with artworks hanging in it,” Allison said. “It’s the experience of coming and experiencing real works of art in your community that you don’t necessarily have access to.”
Set to launch in the fall of 2018, the new Artmobile, called “VMFA on the Road,” will take the basic concept of the old Artmobile and update it with modern technology.
“It won’t be the old Artmobile because the old Artmobile was essentially a moving exhibit. It was works from the collection put on a truck and driven around,” said Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director for art and education. “That was really groundbreaking in the 1950s and 1960s, but what we’re planning is really something — it’s Artmobile 2.0.”
Exhibit design firms Riggs Ward and Explus will create a mobile exhibit that is also a mobile classroom. “VMFA on the Road” will feature an interactive learning experience with staff educators, distance learning and virtual reality tours of exhibits at the VMFA. “VMFA on the Road” will bring a taste of the full experience of going to the museum in Richmond.
Exhibits will change every 18 months starting with a showcase of works by the participants in the VMFA’s Fellowship program, which provides funding for the visual arts and art history in Virginia. And, when the fellows are available, they will come speak to “VMFA on the Road” visitors.
The original Artmobile program was the brainchild of Leslie Cheek Jr., an architect and director of the VMFA from 1948 to 1968, to address the lack of exhibit spaces in the state.
David S. Hudson, a former VMFA spokesman, described the Artmobile in the 1966 Art Journal as a way “the Virginia Museum can bring top-notch exhibitions to colleges and universities in the state that find it difficult to acquire their own representative collections of art.”
By the time the program ended in 1994, the VMFA had a fleet of four 34-foot Chevrolet temperature-controlled, burglar-proofed and fire-alarmed tractor-trailers filled with works of art. For many people in rural areas, the Artmobiles were their first experience with real pieces of historic art.
The Artmobile program was wildly popular, drawing an estimated 2.5 million visitors across the state. The Artmobile was even featured as the Virginia state float in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaugural parade Jan. 20, 1965.
But the program had many challenges, including excessive vibrations during transit and difficulty controlling humidity and temperature settings needed to protect the pieces of art. The program ended after 41 years due to conservation and financial concerns.
A 53-foot Volvo tractor-trailer will house “VMFA on the Road.” It will make stops at schools, retirement facilities and community centers across Virginia. The project will cost around $500,000 to design and install. Money being raised is a combination of individual, foundation and corporate funding.
“We don’t want to be seen as just the Richmond museum; we want to be seen as the Virginia museum,” Taylor said.
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