NORFOLK, Virginia — A museum redesign today conjures the towering ambition of statement architecture, images of an aesthetically belabored addition jutting out from an austerely classical building. But the Chrysler Museum of Art, which reopened May 10 after a significant overhaul and extension, is no site of starchitectural hubris. At a time when the notion of the museum has become hopelessly larded over with features and “experiences” that have little to do with art itself, from hyped restaurants to start-up incubators, there is something nearly radical about an institution that pursues a well-funded but modest addition aimed simply at improving the display of art, raises an endowment dedicated to free entry for its 160,000 or so annual visitors, and launches a program training all museum guards as docents. All told, the renovation was largely an overhaul of the museum’s interior, which only added 10,000 square feet (bringing the total to 210,000), allowing for a full rehanging of the collection and extensive revisions to the floorplan. But beyond such niceties, what makes the Chrysler truly idiosyncratic is the story of its collection, which comes largely from the bequest and efforts of its namesake and founder, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.
Chrysler fils — eldest son of the founder of the Chrysler Motor Company — was many things throughout his life, but chief among them he was a collector of things: paintings, sculpture, glass, horses, and deals. He was a man who boasted at one point of owning more than 340 Picassos, only to trade them back over the years for Old Masters and various other works needed to round out his collection; by his death he held just two. A college friend of Nelson Rockefeller’s and a founding chair of the Museum of Modern Art’s library committee, Chrysler was both of Manhattan — where he was born and raised — and not, having sought to establish himself far from New York’s borders, first on a hunting estate in rural West Virginia, then with his abortive first attempt at a Chrysler Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts, before finally landing in Norfolk, Virginia.
Housed in a 1933 Italianate palazzo at the edge of the Hague Inlet in Norfolk, the museum was, until Walter Chrysler’s 1971 arrival, the Norfolk Museum of Arts & Sciences, a local affair, run by prim Norfolk society and featuring a decidedly provincial collection of art and didactic curiosities from the natural world. The museum’s neighborhood of Ghent was, by the time of Walter’s arrival, the site of a federally funded “urban renewal” project that saw the displacement of “thousands of African American families” and the conversion of old Victorian homes from ramshackle tenements back to stately single-family homes, according to Peggy Earle’s history of the museum published by the University of Virginia Press. Beyond these local tides, the Chrysler, like all institutions of its kind, is fully a monument to a dominant culture, with its spectacular collection of European art driven in large part by the fading fortunes of Europe’s aristocracy in the 20th century; Walter frequently shopped at major estate sales, like the liquidation of Lathom House, where he secured works that hadn’t changed hands in generations.
It was his second wife who brought Chrysler, Jr. back to Norfolk, one of the oldest ports on the East Coast, where they had met years earlier when he was stationed on the naval base there during the Second World War. Though he clashed with Norfolk society, Walter’s significant clout as a collector allowed him to approach the city as a major patron with an iron will. This will, as outlined in Earle’s book, was to secure a permanent legacy for his collection and his family’s name, a desire catalyzed by the untimely death of his charismatic younger brother. But Walter was a difficult man, one who made and alienated many friends throughout his life and who brought his personality, for better and worse, to his museum.
Though the history of museums is shot through with the legacies of the mercurial and eccentric rich, the Chrysler stands out among American institutions in this respect. The museum has strong holdings across the categories by which such collections tend to be judged, from Ancient Egyptian and Hellenistic pieces, including a Late Period sarcophagus and Giustinian sculptures, to significant works by Old Masters, Impressionists, 18th- and 19th-century American painters, and the New York School. Beyond such mainstays, however, are quirks: one of the largest collections of decorative glass in the world (with a significant number of Tiffany pieces), paired with a full-fledged glassblowing studio and school, an extensive collection of American ceramics, and two historic houses in downtown Norfolk. Viewed today, the museum’s eclecticism matches the strange brew of contemporary Norfolk itself, a city with a colorful history that is at once host to major American military bases, a NATO office, and the headquarters of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
Since Walter Chrysler, Jr.’s death in 1988, the museum has, largely under the oversight of Jefferson C. Harrison, chief curator since 1993, been able to whittle Walter’s overbearing influence into a more fine-tuned and enduring legacy. (An issue with forgeries in the collection, detailed in Chrysler’s New York Times obituary, was addressed by early museum director David W. Steadman, who purged the works.) Curatorial efforts have involved the development of a contemporary collection, an extension of which has been the injection of modern and contemporary pieces into galleries of older work; the museum calls these “activations,” as in a Deborah Butterfield sculpture placed in a gallery of 19th-century American art. This flourish makes good use of the museum’s comparatively thin collection of contemporary works, though at times the gesture is modish and forced, as in the placement of Adam Pendleton’s “Black Dada (A/A)” (2011) between paintings by Jackson Pollock and Pierre Soulages. But with this new expansion, the museum seems poised to grow into its next chapter as a major public institution.
The Chrysler Museum of Art is located in Norfolk, Virginia.
Editor’s note: Travel and lodging expenses for this trip were covered by the Chrysler Museum of Art.