Bringing Art to the People in Richmond

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had a plan to reach out to communities that rarely go to a museum. All it needed was a partner with vision and the resources to make it happen.

June 24, 2022

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) sits in the middle of Richmond's Museum District, on the north side of the James River. Established by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1932 on the site of the Confederate Soldiers' Home, it's now freely open 365 days a year to “enrich the lives of all."

The museum's mission sounds simple, but the reality is more complex. VMFA faces the same challenge as many museums: The people who visit aren't always representative of all Virginians — and certainly not of the people of Richmond, the majority of whom are Black and Latino (according to the U.S. Census).

"One of my specific goals and priorities—the big overall goal—is expanding and diversifying our visitor base," says Paula Saylor-Robinson, VMFA's Director of Audience Development and Community Engagement. "The city of Richmond is nearly 50 percent African American, but our visitors are not. There is an opportunity."

Partnering in the Community

Saylor-Robinson collaborates with many community organizations to create awareness and develop relationships across Richmond; one such group is Girls For A Change (GFAC), a local non-profit that seeks to "empower young women by inviting them to design, lead, fund and implement social change projects that tackle issues girls face in their own neighborhoods." Though it's open to all girls who want to participate, GFAC specifically focuses on Black girls.

GFAC's CEO, Angela Patton, was interested in helping VMFA address the challenge of attracting minority visitors—and, in the process, expanding the horizons of the girls enrolled in her programs.

“Last year, VMFA offered to host one of our Girl Action Teams—afterschool programs where girls identify root causes and take action to create social change projects that solve them. Bringing girls to the museum weekly helped connect them to a space they may otherwise not have been in," says Patton. “As the museum worked to open The Dirty South Exhibit, our girls got to see it come alive, meet the curator, see the installations up close and personal, ask questions, and ultimately add their voices to the exhibit."

This year, the Girl Action Team is taking on a project called “Black Girls Museum Too" in which they are designing an exhibit experience.

“We often don't see ourselves as part of the museum experience because a lot of museums are European centric, says Patton. “Through this year's Girl Action Team project, our girls are learning that the way they dress, their culture, and their form of expression is a part of history and will be in a museum one day, too."

In addition to hosting GFAC's Girl Action Team, VMFA has offered tickets to the museum's special exhibits, hired a summer intern through GFAC's Girl Ambassador Program, and has hosted the nonprofit's annual Black Girl Showcase for two years in a row. “Having the Black Girl Showcase at VMFA is the perfect way to wrap up our Girl Action Team programs," says Patton. “They get to experience the museum as part of an event that includes them."

Working with Chase

VMFA's partnership with Girls For A Change inspired Saylor-Robinson to try to find a way to work even more closely with the group. Unfortunately, extending their collaboration would cost money—another challenge for museums like VMFA.

"With JPMorgan Chase's support, we were able to sponsor and host a Girl Action Team here at the museum," Saylor-Robinson said. "It's one of the only Girl Action Teams that cuts across a variety of high schools, and this year's program has eight girls in it from five high schools."

But JPMorgan Chase Chase's support for the collaboration between VMFA and GFAC went even further. "Partnering with JPMorgan Chase allowed us to bring back one of the students that participated on the Girl Action Team as a paid intern over the summer," Saylor-Robinson says.

Patton is equally enthusiastic about having a Girl Ambassador participant at VMFA. "The Girl Ambassador Program is meant to expose girls to jobs they may not have been exposed to or even thought about, " she says. "They also gain real world experience that helps them develop soft and hard skills for the future while having an 'ambassador' who guides them through the internship."

Bringing Art to the People

Girls For A Change is only one part of VMFA's efforts to reach out to the community; it's also literally taking art to the people. VMFA On The Road—aka "the Artmobile"—is a mobile art museum, housed in an expandable trailer, that VMFA established in 2018 to bring art to people across Virginia.

"People are so thrilled to have it come to their neighborhood, town or city," said Jeffrey Allison, the Paul Mellon Collection Educator and Director of Statewide Programs and Exhibitions at VMFA. "And even in Richmond, it is amazing how many people have never been to VMFA or—in many cases—any art museum, so coming on board the Artmobile is their first experience of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or any museum."

And, again, JPMorgan Chase is helping to put the show on the road...literally. This year's mobile exhibition, "Revealing and Obscuring Identity: Portraits from the Permanent Collection," is sponsored by the bank.

"It's great because people don't always get an opportunity to go to the museum—you can't always travel there," says Tom Ing, Chase's Executive Director, Market Director Banking in the region. "With the Artmobile, we bring it to them."

The JPMorgan Chase sponsorship allows the Artmobile and its team of three educators to travel all over the city and state, offering tours and the opportunity for visitors to make their own art. There are currently 24 stops on its schedule through December, including fairs, cultural festivals, schools, community centers and other sites in underserved areas.

"We are thrilled to partner with JPMorgan Chase," says Allison. "We have the same goals: Sharing wonderful art, wonderful educational opportunities, opportunities for people to see things and learn things they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. It's enriching the community."