From Robert Boyle to Andy Warhol

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November 10, 2009

2:20 AM

The next time you have the urge to visit a world-class art museum, look a little closer to home.

The Muscarelle Museum of Art, which opened in 1983, contains more than 4,500 works of eastern and western art in its galleries, ranging from antiques to modern art.

Some pieces even have special connections to Virginia’s colonial history.

“The historic portraits are nationally significant,” Muscarelle Director Aaron de Groft ’88 said. “We have portraits of members of the great Virginia families, including the Rev. James Blair. A couple pieces of silver were given by some of the first governors of the colonies.”

According to de Groft, the museum’s first piece of art was a portrait of the noted English scientist Robert Boyle, who donated the land on which the Brafferton, the nation’s first school for Native American children and the current-day offices of the College of William and Mary’s president and provost was built.

The Muscarelle also hosts numerous traveling art exhibits and community events throughout the year.

“We have a fantastic Andy Warhol show beginning Friday,” de Groft said. “The Arc program is a community program that happens once a month, [and we] hosted a School of Education reception.”

In an effort to increase attendance and improve its community profile, the museum has quadrupled its number of hosted events, according to de Groft.

“We’ve thrown the doors open,” de Groft said. “We have a big exhibition this spring. … We’re showing a collection of Michelangelo drawings, the only American venue for this [exhibition]. The whole idea is to make our exhibits and programs commensurate to the prestige of our great university.”

According to de Groft, the services offered by the Muscarelle make it seem more like a research center or academic hall than a museum.

“The Muscarelle is really a laboratory for William and Mary students, especially for those who major in art,” he said. “It’s a place for experimental learning.”

Students at the College have also found opportunities to become involved in the museum’s operation.

“We have many, students working on projects, internships and doing research,” de Groft said. “It’s more than we can handle most of the time.”

The museum’s attendance rates increased by over 50,000 visitors in the past few years, totaling approximately 61,000 guests in 2009, 65 percent of whom were students at the College.

The growing number of visitors has not kept the it from struggling financially at times.

“The museum almost closed in 2001 when [former College President Timothy Sullivan’s] administration cut the budget by 90 percent,” de Groft said. “We reached a low point [for funding] of $75,000 from College allocations around 2004 to 2005 … This year we have experienced the cuts that everyone else has.”

Funding for the museum currently comes from three sources. The museum’s single largest benefactor is the College itself, which provided approximately $480,000 in funding in 2009. The second largest source of funds comes from earned revenue and private donations, totaling approximately $450,000 in 2009. The Muscarelle’s endowment provides the third source of income, totaling about $256,000 annually.

“The College has had to cut,” de Groft said. “They have increased earned revenue. [However], our endowment grew, [and] the spend ratio grew but stayed flat because of the economy.”

De Groft said that the College’s long-term plans for building a new arts center has many at the museum excited.

“The new arts complex is the big initiative to which we are [proceeding],” de Groft said. “It would be a series of four buildings and would actually be cheaper than some of the ones we are currently building [on campus].”

While the new arts center remains a distant project, de Groft said that the Muscarelle will continue to raise appreciation of the arts in the College community.

“We serve the College,” de Groft said. “They are our biggest donor, and we have to be important in the lives of students.”

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