For Virginia Museum Director, Life Is Rarely Still

Alex Nyerges i i

Alex Nyerges says the one job that might tempt him away from the VMFA would be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Noah Adams/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Noah Adams/NPR
Alex Nyerges

Alex Nyerges says the one job that might tempt him away from the VMFA would be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Noah Adams/NPR
Jackson Pollock's 1948 painting "Number Fifteen" i i

Nyerges says he loves Jackson Pollock's 1948 painting Number Fifteen: "You can see and feel Jackson Pollock's arm twisting around as he's dipping his paintbrush into the can and then moving it across the surface of this picture and this paper," he says. "It's absolutely marvelous." Virginia Museum of Fine Arts hide caption

itoggle caption Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Jackson Pollock's 1948 painting "Number Fifteen"

Nyerges says he loves Jackson Pollock's 1948 painting Number Fifteen: "You can see and feel Jackson Pollock's arm twisting around as he's dipping his paintbrush into the can and then moving it across the surface of this picture and this paper," he says. "It's absolutely marvelous."

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Alex Nyerges is no stranger to working 16-hour days and wearing multiple hats. As director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, his domain ranges from the art blogosphere to the VMFA's $130 million construction site — with countless travel obligations, fundraising opportunities and donor visits thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and then there's the ghost.

Lizzie Boyd was a spinster who, a half-century ago, had her house moved from out in the country to what is now an elite Richmond neighborhood. She left the property to the museum after she died, and it has since become the home of the museum's directors — with only an occasional ghostly return.

"I was going down to have breakfast and read my e-mail, and I stepped onto the staircase here and ... I felt this hand firmly touching my right shoulder," the 51-year-old museum director says of his "benevolent" encounter with Lizzie. "Then I turned around and she was gone."

Nyerges says he has crossed paths with the ghost only once. He spends most mornings alone, sipping a cup of tea and nibbling on a bite of Swiss chocolate while he checks blogs for a mention of museums.

"With 80 million bloggers out there, my goal would be to have about 8 million of them blog about the Virginia museum every day," he says.

Before taking the post in Richmond, Nyerges was a museum director in Jackson, Miss., and then Dayton, Ohio. Then, two summers ago, he was recruited for the Virginia job when the previous director left for Los Angeles.

The venerable old Richmond museum was in the midst of an ongoing renovation when Nyerges arrived, and the construction is still in progress. Nyerges puts on a hard hat to visit the construction site almost every day.

The centerpiece of the new building — the Cochrane Atrium — is part of a trend whereby museums are welcoming their neighborhoods by emphasizing natural light, gardens and cafes.

"The atrium is the length of a football field long — 300 feet long," says Nyerges. "It is virtually four stories tall, because it also goes down into the lower level. ... Along the entire length of the atrium on both sides running east to west are skylights bringing light into the area."

The atrium is named for Louise and Harwood Cochrane. Harwood, 95, is the former owner of a billion-dollar trucking company. His wife Louise, 93, is an artist herself.

The couple have an endowment fund at the museum that produces $2 million a year to help buy American art, and Nyerges often visits them to bring updates, ask for advice and admire Louise's latest paintings.

A visit with the Cochranes is just one of 40 or 50 events and appointments the director has each week. He keeps his schedule on small pieces of paper in his shirt pocket. One recent week included a lunch with senior staff and the former board presidents, an after-hours Alzheimer's fundraising group in a private home and various banquets and gallery openings.

Nyerges likes to drive around Richmond with the top down on his black Miata Roadster — he says he wants to be the public face of the Virginia Museum.

His wife Kathryn, who has been a musician and worked with an outdoor theater troupe in Ohio, says her background in performing arts helps her keep up with her husband's myriad social obligations.

"I notice that right before people are to arrive, I'll say to Alex, 'Oh, I just can't do this. I don't have the energy,' " she says. "But as soon as the first person arrives, I rise to the occasion."

And where does Nyerges get the energy to stand up to 16-hour days full of travel, fundraising and the expectations of trustees?

He says fast bike rides and long runs help, but mostly he recharges by writing fiction. For an hour a day, very early in the morning, he writes short stories and novels. None are published and no one has seen them, but they allow him to be as fanciful as he likes: In one story he started 15 years ago, a former archaeologist chases down a painting in Peru after it's stolen from Atlanta's art museum.

After two years in Richmond, Nyerges says the one job that might tempt him away would be at the National Gallery of Art — simply because it's a world-class museum and its in Washington, D.C. Plus, he loves the Redskins football team.

But at a recent salsa night in the museum's vast Marble Hall, Nyerges seemed perfectly content holding a beer in his hand and watching hundreds of people dance the night away.

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