When Jeffrey Allison was growing up in Saltville, Virginia, he saw a glimpse of his future when his aunt took him to the original Virginia Museum of Fine Arts artmobile. He was 6, and the exhibition was paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection.
“I knew immediately that I wanted to grow up and work in the arts, though I had no idea what that meant at that age. But I started to read everything I could find about art,” Allison says.
If you leap into Allison’s future, his life is filled with those paintings and the artmobile. His official title is Paul Mellon Collection education and Manager of Statewide Programs and Exhibitions – one can only imagine how that fits on a business card.
“When the opportunity at the VMFA opened up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to serve the entire state through the museum’s statewide programs. Basically, anything that happens off our museum campus, whether it is in Richmond or Wise, falls in my department. We have traveling exhibitions, artist workshops, lectures, performances, teacher workshops and more available to more than 1,100 partners around the state. I have a small staff at the museum but over 30 statewide faculty who travel for us,” he says.
Two years ago, he began the process of creating a new artmobile, VMFA On The Road.
“We were working on the next strategic plan for the museum and, as a group, decided it was finally time to bring back the artmobile program but to do it in a 21st-century way. The old artmobile program stopped because we could no longer travel original works of art around the state in that truck. With advances in technology, we can control things like heat and humidity, lighting and security much better. We can also offer things like on board distance learning opportunities. A class can visit the exhibition and literally talk to an educator in the galleries at the museum in Richmond live.
“It was a two-year project from start to completion. I was lucky to be the project manager as well as the curator of the first exhibition. I worked with a great design firm in Richmond, Riggs Ward, to design the truck itself as well as the exhibition, digital and video components, even the exterior signage which features artist Dale Chihuly’s ‘Red Reeds,’ which are on display in the museum’s sculpture gardens. A firm called Explus, in Northern Virginia, did the installation and renovations on the truck itself.
“We were very fortunate to get a truck that had been used as the Civil War History Mobile donated by the state. We completely remodeled it, but that was a huge help. The artmobile is funded primarily by private donations, and we have had a great amount of support, in part, because so many people loved the original program.
“The truck is pretty amazing. We have a huge Volvo tractor which pulls a 53-and-one-half foot trailer that expands to twice its width once it is set up. There is an onboard generator which powers our HVAC, all the digital components, lighting, etc. We have the ability to keep our internal environment set to 70 degrees temperature and 50 percent humidity – the same as at the museum. We also have a state-of-the-art security system. The lighting system is also state-of-the-art LED and is adjusted by our lighting department at the museum,” he says.
For the inaugural exhibition on board the artmobile, Allison focused on the VMFA Fellowship Program. The museum has been giving fellowships to undergraduate, graduate and professional artists since 1940. Allison won two of those fellowships: one as an undergraduate and one as a graduate student, which had a “great impact” on him.
“We have so many world-renowned artists who have won. The exhibition features artists such as Vince Gilligan, best known as writer and director of TV shows such as ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul,’ who was from Farmville, Virginia; Sally Mann and Cy Twombly from Lexington, Virginia; and Benjamin Wigfall from the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. In all, there are 12 artists featured.
“One of my photography heroes is Emmet Gowin, originally from Danville. When I saw his work in undergraduate school, I was blown away. In addition to featuring his work in the exhibition, I had the opportunity to spend the day with him at his original home in Danville shooting a documentary about his work and life. Part of that video is also featured on the artmobile. He is an amazing photographer and an amazing human being,” Allison says.
VFMA On The Road includes materials on the museum’s website for families and teachers to use – before and after visits. Two educators, Sukenya Best and Sean Kane, travel on the artmobile and conduct planned class tours, workshops and lectures and work with visitors during open hours. It also has onboard digital interactives. Visitors can make a work of art that travels along with artmobile to the next stop. It also hosts distance learning components, documentaries about all of artists and more.
Allison says that VFMA On The Road has a third very important staff member – the driver Chris Hairston. “It takes an amazing driver not only to move the truck from location to location, but also to park it. It is the largest tractor trailer you can have on the road without the lead and follow cars you sometimes see.”
The VMFA was the first state art museum in the United States and is still one of only three. Since it opened in 1936 one of its primary goals has been to make everything at the museum in Richmond available to all Virginians. The museum is open 365 days a year and until 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
Beginning in 1953 the original artmobile program brought art exhibitions and educational programs to colleges, schools and community organizations across Virginia for 40 years, reaching 2.5 million people. For many Virginians, this unique art-museum-on-wheels was their first encounter with VMFA. Since then, museums around the country and throughout the world have created their own mobile museum experiences.
The museum’s first artmobile opened at Maury Elementary School in Fredericksburg Oct. 13, 1953, it attracted 5,000 visitors in its first three weeks.
William Gaines, who staffed the artmobile in those first days, was called a driver-curator. The day before the opening, he took a crash course on driving the truck and, once he got to Fredericksburg, hooked up the electricity for lighting, air-conditioning, a burglar alarm and the loud speaker. Then, he reverted to his role as educator, offering tours and teaching classes of children.
Over the next decade, VMFA’s artmobile program continued to attract thousands of visitors to dozens of Virginia communities, adding three more trucks by 1964. By 1970, there were three full-time curators staffing the artmobiles and separate drivers.
The artmobile brought 59 different exhibitions to Virginia towns, ranging from “Little Dutch Masters” to “African Textile Arts.” While most of the objects came from VMFA’s collection, some exhibitions featured works on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim Museum and other institutions. Speakers offering lectures on a variety of art-related topics were also from some of the nation’s leading universities and museums.
While budgetary constraints and concerns about conserving and protecting works of art on the road eventually led to the program’s end in 1994, bringing art to all Virginians remained VMFA’s core mission.
“We know that there are folks who live more than six or even seven hours from Richmond. That is why we travel exhibitions to our statewide partners, like William King Museum of Art in Abingdon and send artists, performers and speakers to do programs throughout the state. Still, it’s hard for everyone to travel to our programs, so we bring exhibitions and educators to communities throughout the state with VMFA on the Road: The Artmobile for the 21st Century.
“I have been at the VMFA for over 22 years. And, it has always been extremely important to me to make sure the museum serves Southwest Virginia as much as possible. The museum was important to me growing up in Saltville, even though I only first visited it in Richmond when I was in college. From the original artmobile to films and educational exhibitions that came to my high school, that museum made a huge impact. I want to make sure, especially now that we have the new artmobile, that people in this region get all of the opportunities I did and more. The arts are an important part of education and an important part of life no matter where you live. And, remember - we at the VMFA say, ‘It’s Your Art,’” Allison says