Exhibition of the Month: Painters of the Renaissance

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been sharing examples of outreach exhibitions from my dissertation. Previous posts focused on the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions and the Community Art Center Project. Now let’s look at a show from my third case study, the VMFA Artmobile. Today, we consider Painters of the Renaissance.

This is actually the second Artmobile vehicle, which was bigger than the truck that featured Painters of the Renaissance, but it operated on a similar format. Image: a parked truck with pictures displayed along with exterior, and visitors looking at them.

Note: I don’t have any good images of the show or the artworks it featured, but you can see both in this promotional video the VMFA put together in the early 1960s. Plus it’s hosted by none other than Alistair Cooke!

Historical Background

The VMFA Artmobile officially opened in 1953 in response to the museum’s statewide mission. Established in 1936 as a state art museum, the VMFA took seriously its commitment to serving communities around Virginia. By 1950, it already had a robust extension program encompassing more than 70 exhibitions. Like the Met’s Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, these shows appeared at libraries, schools, and other host sites. Yet the VMFA believed that many communities could not meet museum-level exhibition and conservation requirements, curtailing the kind of art they were willing to send out.

Technically this is Artmobile II, which opened after the vehicle we’ll be talking about today, but it’s a good picture. Source:

Enter Leslie Cheek, Jr., Director of the VMFA from 1948 to 1968. An ambitious arts professional, Cheek wanted to position the VMFA as a peer of older, established institutions along the Eastern seaboard. Over the course of his tenure, the VMFA expanded its collections, added new galleries and other spaces, and introduced innovative programming. Among the most enduring and recognizable of these was the VMFA Artmobile, which operated in various forms from 1953-1994, and was revived in 2018.

A Focus on Quality

A key component of the Artmobile was its emphasis on quality, both through the works featured on board and their curation. The museum regarded the Artmobile as a fully-realized art gallery, not just a vehicle for transporting art. Its educational focus addressed best practices in exhibition and display as well as art history. The museum outfitted the vehicle with the same kinds of materials used for their in-house galleries, from wall coverings to lighting. While preparing their second exhibition, Art of Ancient Egypt, museum staff even created a full-sized maquette of the Artmobile gallery so that they could curate the space to scale.

The art included aboard the vehicle also emphasized the program’s quality. Publications and interviews repeatedly iterated that no work was too fine or rare for the Artmobile. Whether the art came from the Museum’s inventory or was loaned from private and public collections, viewers could expect first-rate aesthetic encounters. That said, increasing sophistication in conservation assessments would eventually curtail the kind of art the VMFA placed aboard its mobile gallery. During the early years of the program, however, nothing was off-limits.

Painters of the Renaissance

Painters of the Renaissance focused on Italian art, and was the third exhibition curated for the Artmobile. It was also the first to feature the VMFA’s permanent collection exclusively. The previous two shows, Little Dutch Masters and Art from Ancient Egypt, either used loaned works entirely or mixed the permanent collection with loans.

Painters of the Renaissance included fourteen works spanning from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Some of the featured artists included Ambrogio Lorenzetti, a fourteenth-century painter active in Siena; Luca Signorelli, a Tuscan artist working during the fifteenth and sixteen centuries; and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a significant representative of the Venetian Rococo. The exhibition was noteworthy for featuring new acquisitions, as these paintings had only recently entered the collection. Far from being relegated to surplus pieces confined to storage, viewers in even the most rural parts of Virginia could access the collection’s newest acquisitions.

One of the most interesting facets of Painters of the Renaissance is that it could have been a different show. Initially, the VMFA planned to showcase works from the Kress Foundation. Extant checklists from this first iteration of the show reveal a focus on older works, with most of the paintings dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Before finalizing the loans, however, the Kress expressed concern over the Artmobile’s air conditioning. At that time, the Artmobile only used its air conditioning while in operation as a gallery, not during periods of transit. The VMFA would ultimately cancel the loan, having recently acquired Italian paintings of its own. The Kress Foundation’s questions over the air conditioning would foreshadow later conservation concerns. The VMFA cited varying levels in temperature and humidity as reasons to discontinue the original program in 1994.

My Thoughts on Painters of the Renaissance

For me, the Artmobile embodies the optimism so often attributed to the midcentury. The VMFA’s confidence in its ability to transport works of art to viewers regardless of their location invites admiration. It also invites scrutiny, since my objective in the dissertation is to complicate that optimism.

Being a Cold War initiative, moreover, the Artmobile strikes me as a patriotic endeavor, particularly in its construction. The actual trailer was a customized job from the Detroit-based Fruehauf Trailer Company. The trucks used to tow it were also American in manufacture. Through modern, American automotive technology, in other words, the VMFA believed it had found a way to democratize art. Indeed, during the 1950s Leslie Cheek had ambitions of sending multiple Artmobiles to Communist nations in Europe. The intention was to share American democratic culture through both its art and its technology. This plan never materialized, but it speaks to the conviction that the VMFA had placed in the vehicle.

The history of the loan negotiations behind this exhibition also interests me. Ultimately the VMFA took pride in its Italian Renaissance show, calling it the most exquisite exhibition the Artmobile had staged to date. But knowing that an entirely different set of paintings could have been on board the vehicle is intriguing. To paraphrase Caroline M. Riley’s MoMA Goes to Paris, it emphasizes the subjectivity of art canons as curated through exhibitions. Loan approvals or rejections significantly shape what we see on the walls. Far from inevitable, shows like Painters of the Renaissance emphasize the importance of seemingly mundane activities such as loan negotiations to our understanding of art history.

Stay Tuned for Next Month

So there you have it for Painters of the Renaissance. What did you think? Do you find the intrigue of loan discussions as compelling as I do?

Next month we’ll shift back to the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions. Stay tuned!

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