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Balancing Needs: Caring for Virginia's State Art Collection

Posted By Meghan Townes, Thursday, July 7, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Meghan Townes checks out the Houdon sculpture of George Washington. Conservator Scott Nolley took this photo during an annual cleaning of the statue.Virginia began the process of collecting state art before it was even a state. The General Assembly resolved to honor George Washington with a marble statue as “a monument of affection and Gratitude” on June 22, 1784, almost exactly four years before Virginia was admitted to the Union. The resulting sculpture of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon still stands as the centerpiece of a collection that now includes over 400 works. The development of state art began in earnest around 1873, when a proposed revision of the Code of Virginia specified, “In particular, the [Library] committee shall cause to be procured from time to time, as opportunities may offer, a copy of any book, pamphlet, or manuscript, work of art, or relic, relating to the history of Virginia.”  An Executive Memorandum in 1998 led to the Library of Virginia taking on a more formalized role in the care and oversight of state art on display at the Executive Mansion, the Capitol and grounds, and executive level offices and agencies in the Capitol Square area.

In practical terms, this arrangement means that the stewards of each site curate the state works in their care, with the Library ensuring the physical and intellectual control of the collection. We maintain documentation and coordinate conservation and object moving as needed. We also make sure that the catalog files for each object contain all of the information you would expect in museum records – location and condition notes, provenance, curatorial research, etc. Since taking on the role of visual studies collection registrar at the Library in 2013, I have been working as well on creating an electronic database that will allow us to more closely track the objects at the different sites, search across records, and create subgroups based on subjects or historical locations.      

Coming from a historic house museum, I was already used to managing collections that were not displayed in perfectly controlled exhibit galleries. And, in some ways, the state art collection is a lot like a historic house museum collection, even beyond the obvious parallel of the Executive Mansion. For one thing, the buildings create a historical context for the art. We have pieces that depict the men and women who have lived at the Executive Mansion or worked at the Capitol, and even pieces that were designed for specific spots, such as the Rotunda and Old Hall of the House of Delegates. The other similarity with historic house museums is that the buildings were not designed primarily as places to exhibit art, but, in our case, to serve as the seat of government for the Commonwealth. Exhibiting art in these working, public buildings, therefore, presents a unique set of challenges. 

Each state art site has a number of stewards and stakeholders, from the Clerks of the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate at the Capitol, to the First Family at the Executive Mansion, to the Department of General Services (DGS), which maintains the buildings and grounds. This means that Virginia’s state art has a team of people invested in it, but it also means that we have to work diligently to communicate with all stakeholders. For example, removing a loaned sculpture from the Capitol in the summer of 2014 required cross-checking schedules with the Clerks, the Capitol Square Preservation Council, and the Capitol guides to avoid conflicts with legislative events or tours, coordinating with DGS to have carpenters on hand to assist the art handling crew, and keeping Capitol Police in the loop so that the art handlers had appropriate access for their vehicles, staff, and equipment. This was in addition to the typical registrarial responsibilities of communicating with the lender, insurer, and art handlers to properly document the end of the loan. As working buildings, another challenge is that traffic flow in and out of the sites, both for government functions and public visitation, means a higher fluctuation of environmental conditions and exposure to particulate dust and debris than you would find in a traditional museum gallery. To mitigate this, the state works closely with conservators to monitor and care for its pieces, and the Library provides a specially designed storage and work area for objects off display. 

Caring for Virginia’s state art collection is a question of balancing the needs of the pieces in the collection with the works’ important role in documenting and displaying the state’s visual history in our most significant public buildings. There’s something very special about watching legislators work underneath the portraits of their predecessors, or seeing a tour group view portrayals of both George Washington and Barbara Johns. It’s an honor to help make sure these pieces continue to tell the story of Virginia.

Further reference: Batson, Barbara C., and Tracy L. Kamerer. 2005. A Capital Collection: Virginia's Artistic Inheritance. Richmond: Library of Virginia.

Captions for pictures below:


In the first State Library building (now the Oliver Hill Building), state art was displayed alongside reference books. Courtesy Library of Virginia.


The 16 most recent governors’ portraits are displayed on the 3rd floor of the Capitol, and their rotation is one of the recurring collections management tasks.

 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  art  collections  congress  conservation  general assembly  George Washington  historic house  history  legislature  library  Library of Virginia  museums  preservation  Richmond  Virginia  Virginia State Capitol 

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