Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Meet the Muscarelle

Welcome to the Muscarelle. Photo courtesy of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia, has long been a tourist attraction due to its colonial section---a section of town where elementary school field trips flock, where butter churning is an event, where cell phones are out, and bonnets are in. But there are other reasons to pay a trip to Williamsburg. Wander to the College of William & Mary and you will find the Muscarelle Museum of Art. This museum, first opened in 1983, has deep ties to the school that created it, as well as deep ties to the more than 4,000 pieces of art it displays. The collection spans across 400 years and a variety of cultures and styles, from African art to Abstract Expressionist watercolors. The National Endowment for the Arts had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Aaron De Groft, the director of the Muscarelle, about the collections, the college, and Blue Star Museums.

NEA: I know that you are a William & Mary graduate, did you have any experience with the Muscarelle as a student? Did it influence you to ultimately take this career path?

AARON DE GROFT: Yes. I played baseball at William & Mary; I was in the architecture program. My sophomore year, I tore up my knee playing intramural volleyball during the baseball season, and I came to realize I didn’t like the architecture program so much. So I switched to art history, and I hobbled over to the Muscarelle, and I started painting walls, hanging lights, matting and framing things. I really learned the museum business from the bottom up. I got the chance to go study in Italy, and then go to graduate school. It was great, I got a Master’s and a PhD, and had jobs.

The museum’s budget was cut 90 percent in the previous administration in 2002, and when they recovered from that a little bit, in 2005, they were going to search for a director. And I got a call, being an alum, and being a deputy director and a chief curator at a big museum, and they said, “Would you consider coming back to your alma mater, to the Muscarelle?” and I said “I thought it had closed!” We all thought that, because it almost had. I came back in the summer of 2005, to work on behalf of my alma mater, and it’s been really wonderful. It’s kind of weird to sit on the other side of the director’s desk from where I was when I was a student, but it’s been very gratifying. Since that time the museum has been very fortunate, very lucky. We rebuilt the place in terms of its finances, its attendance, its programs, its products. The collection has grown immensely, the financial situation has totally turned around. We’re really happy. Ultimately, the big prize wasn’t just to rebuild the museum---it’s the new arts complex that will be the new public entrance to the college. It will include a proper concert hall, a new museum, theater, dance, art, art history, film studies---an integrated arts complex that will be the public entrance to our esteemed university.

Students get a closer look at the art about to go on display in the museum. Photo courtesy of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia

NEA: I was reading a bit about that and saw that there would be laboratory space; can you speak a little about that?

DE GROFT: We pride ourselves on the museum being a place for experiential learning. The museum is simply a laboratory just like if you went to chemistry class, and followed it up by going to lab, or if you went to French language class and followed that by going to the listening lab. This is a place where what you do is how you learn. People write a lot of papers and listen to a lot of lectures, but we create real world experiences that we think benefit our students because it gives them something for their resume, it gives them actual working experience, and a product they can take with them.

NEA: You’ve mentioned that college students work in the Muscarelle. How strongly are the museum and the college connected, and does one affect the other in any specific ways?

DE GROFT: I believe that the museum and the arts at the college have the highest number of town and gown impact, in terms of the general public. And that’s even above sports, which is hard to do. I can tell you that we definitely lead the college in terms of external exposure, but the college is always involved, so it’s a great brand. We’ve been called, pound-for-pound, the finest university art museum in America, when you look at attendance, and exhibitions, the size of the budget, and the growth. We’re not the biggest and the largest, but when you look at increasing attendance from 11,000 people a year to over 80,000, tripling your membership, quadrupling the budget---we built the endowment from five million to 18 million. Our 30th anniversary will kick off this coming February, and what’s crazy about it is that we’re doing our second Michelangelo drawing show. I don’t know any museum in America that has done a second Michelangelo show. We have a special relationship with the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, and we’re really doing this in honor of their long-time director. But we have 25 major drawings by Michelangelo to kick off our 30th anniversary, so we’re very proud. We look at what we do as a menu. We do a lot with the faculty, a lot with the students, we have a lot going on with the community, we’re doing internationally significant exhibitions, we’ve published seven books in the last six years, we’ve had almost 800 works come into the collection in the past six years. It’s very rewarding being an alum, and to help be a part of this. I mean, everyone can have a job, but when you get to give back to your alma mater it’s very gratifying.

NEA: Has there been a particular collection, or piece, that has stood out to you?

DE GROFT: It’s hard to determine…we have coming to us a very significant collection of German expressionist art, from an artist that was listed by Hitler as a degenerate artist, which today, is kind of like a badge of honor. We already have the complete graphic works of this artist, Hans Friedrich Grohs, but we’re getting 2,000 more works from the family collection, and a library, and an archive. So it’s very comprehensive to set up, at our great university, a center for German Expressionism, which has a very personal and extensive archive, and a library that goes with it. We just acquired a great piece by Andrea Mantegna, one of the great Renaissance artists in Florence, sort of an early, undocumented version. We’ve acquired our first Picasso prints, first Rembrandt prints. Our Japanese woodblocks, our collection has grown immensely and incredibly valuably, because the Ronin Gallery, on Madison Avenue in New York, the most significant Japanese print dealer in the country, their son came to William & Mary eight years ago. So every year they came to evaluate the collection, which was very mediocre at the time, and they’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donations here over eight years. That collection has grown immensely and is very, very strong because of that connection, and they’re still donors to us even though their son graduated three years ago.

Interior view of the museum. Photo courtesy of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia

NEA: What made you want to join Blue Star Museums this summer?

DE GROFT: That’s an easy question: because of our location. Hampton Roads is the general geographical area, which includes the south side. We’re talking about Norfolk, Virginia Beach. This is a huge military community. Williamsburg sort of sits adjacent to a very important part of our general region, with not only shipyards that are building naval ships, but also Air Force, Navy base. We’re a major hub for the military, which comprises a major part of our economy. For us it was a welcome opportunity to help give back to people who occupy a very big part of our community, but in some ways hadn’t been coming in our direction in the past.

NEA: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

ADG: [Blue Star] is something that is very personal to me; I come from a military family. I was born at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, my father served for 30 years in the Marine Corps, three tours in Vietnam. It’s something that is personally motivating for me, being in a position to oversee the museum at the college. We have military presence with ROTC here, there are retired military people as well, and this was just such a wonderful opportunity for us to give back to the community in a way that made us feel very gratified.

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