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

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For Virginia Museum Director, Life Is Rarely Still

For Virginia Museum Director, Life Is Rarely Still

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. 20 art museums in the U.S. are without a director. They're all seeking a rare blend of enthusiasm, scholarship, and especially an ability to raise money. So the second story in our weekly series on the challenges museums face is about the job of running a museum, and it's about Alex Nyerges, the man with the top spot at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. NPR's Noah Adams went to Richmond for this profile.

NOAH ADAMS: You could also say this museum needs a director who is not afraid of ghosts because you'll be living in Lizzie Boyd's old house. Boyd, a spinster, died in the bedroom where Alex Nyerges and his wife, Kathryn, now sleep. When Alex met up with the spectral Ms. Boyd, it was dark on the staircase.

Mr. ALEX NYERGES (Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts): I was going down to have breakfast and read my email, and I stepped on to this first landing that I felt this hand firmly touching my right shoulder.

ADAMS: He knew this wasn't Kathryn.

Mr. NYERGES: She was real, but she wasn't. She had her hand on my shoulder, and it was in a very benevolent way, and followed me down as it makes the turn. She followed me all the way down the stairs. And then I turn around, and she was gone.

ADAMS: Lizzie Boyd a half century ago had this house moved from out in the country to what is now an elite Richmond neighborhood. She left the property to the Virginia Museum. And now, it's the directors' home. Alex Nyerges was greeted by the ghost just that one time. And now, he has his early mornings alone for a cup of tea and one bite of chocolate.

Mr. NYERGES: And actually, it has orange chips in it. It's a Swiss chocolate. I get my orange kick and my dark chocolate all in one.

ADAMS: In the kitchen, a computer screen lights up a counter top. Alex is checking all the blogs that have overnight made some mention of museums.

Mr. NYERGES: Frugal things to do in St. Louis, Missouri, and, of course, at the top of the list, the St. Louis Art Museum, which is free. But this is great because somebody else besides me and this guy is reading it. With 80 million bloggers out there, my goal would be to have about eight million of them blog about the Virginia Museum every day.

ADAMS: Alex will soon be off to his museum in a black Miata roadster. He wears an elegant dark suit. He is 51-years-old, was a director in Jackson, Mississippi and then Dayton, Ohio and two summers ago was recruited for the Virginia job when their guy left for Los Angeles. When Alex arrived, the venerable old Richmond museum was in the process of being made new. It still is, and almost every day, he gets to put on the construction workers' hard hat.

(Soundbite of construction)

Mr. NYERGES: This is the Cochrane Atrium, which is the length of a football field on both sides. Running east to west are skylights bringing light into the area. Stone on the floor...

ADAMS: Alex tells me that all over the country, museums are welcoming their neighborhoods. The fortress walls are coming down, more light, gardens, cafes. You noticed Alex spoke about the Cochrane Atrium. The Cochranes are alive, robust, in their 90s, and rich. Alex goes to see them often.

Mr. NYERGES: 15 or 20 years out is about having the vision to what needs to happen and what we need to build on.

ADAMS: We're in a gracious apartment in a Richmond retirement complex with Louise and Harwood Cochrane. Mr. Cochrane is 95-years-old. He has been a trucking company guy.

Mr. HARWOOD COCHRANE (Philanthropist, Retired Owner of a Transportation Company): Nobody ever come by to ask me for anything I know anything about.

Mr. NYERGES: I love it. I love it.

Mr. COCHRANE: I can tell you a whole lot about Virginians(ph) and tires. I spent my whole life in it, since I was 16.

ADAMS: Harwood Cochrane sold his transportation company in 1986 for over a billion dollars. The Cochranes have an endowment fund at the museum that produces two million dollars a year to help buy specifically American art.

Ms. LOUISE COCHRANE (Philanthropist, Artist): There's so many people out there that don't have the slightest idea what they do at the Virginia Museum.

ADAMS: Louise is 93. She is an artist herself, sells quite a few paintings, and it is not simply a courtesy when Alex Nyerges asked to see what she's been working on in her studio.

Ms. COCHRANE: That's a rose. That's a single rose.

Mr. NYERGES: Your technique, Louise, is getting lose and gerstural.

Ms. COCHRANE: See, I can't see well enough to refine anything anymore.

Mr. NYERGES: But that's great. The same thing was true with Monet and Edgar Degas. I mean...

Ms. COCHRANE: Yeah, and I just dip the paintbrush where I know the blue and the red are supposed to be.

ADAMS: Nighttime at the museum, I wanted to see the art the way Alex might if he ever stood still. He leads me to a Jackson Pollock, "Number Fifteen" from 1948. Alex loves the splotches of red and slashes of yellow and white.

Mr. NYERGES: 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. It's absolutely marvelous.

ADAMS: In his shirt pocket, Alex Nyerges keeps his schedule on small pieces of paper, appointments, events, he says as many as 40 or 50 a week. If you have been a president of the board of trustees, you'll come for lunch with senior and director Nyerges.

Mr. NYERGES: All of this comes at a time when our endowment is shrinking because of the markets. But, you know, like all of the other budget cuts we've had...

ADAMS: And after office hours, a drop by at a private home. It's an Alzheimer's fund raising group. The museum director would be expected to show up, and Alex wants to come. His father back home in Rochester, New York has senile dementia.

(Soundbite of greeting)

ADAMS: Alex Nyerges likes to drive around Richmond with the top down. He wants to be the public face of the Virginia Museum. He and his wife, Kathryn, are noticeable at banquets, gallery openings. Kathryn is taller, blond. She's been a musician and worked with an outdoor drama in Ohio. She and Alex also host lots of dinners and receptions at their home.

Ms. KATHRYN NYERGES (Musician, Performance Artist): I think my background in performing arts really serves me well in this position because I notice at times that right before people are to arrive, I'll say to Alex, oh, I just can't do this. This is - you know, I'm so beat. You know, I don't have the energy. I can't really get up for this. But as soon as the first person arrives, it's like I rise to the occasion, and I just kind of breeze through the evening.

ADAMS: Alex and I have a conversation in a downtown cafe called Burly's. He likes the biscuits here. My question is, how do you stand up to 16-hour days and the travel and the fundraising and the expectations of trustees. He does go for fast bike rides and long runs, but here's what works. He writes fiction an hour a day very early in the morning. He writes short stories, novels, none published. No one has seen them, and he can be as fanciful as he likes.

Mr. NYERGES: A painting gets stolen from the Atlanta Museum of Art, and this guy who is a former archaeologist ends up chasing the painting down, and it's stolen by this deraluminosa(ph) in Peru.

ADAM: Alex Nyerges, two years now in Richmond, says the one job that might tempt him away, simply because it's Washington D.C. and world-class and he loves the Redskins football team, would be the National Gallery of Art. But at this moment, he is happy, a beer in his hand, watching hundreds of people dance at a salsa night in the vast marble hall of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Noah Adams, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Next Monday, our series about museums continues. We'll have a tale of two museum buildings. Both were built by the same prominent architect, Daniel Libeskind. One museum was praised by critics as a great mix of form and function, and the other considered a lousy place to see art. What made the difference? You can find out one week from now on All Things Considered.

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