Described as “a huge asset to the community” and “one of Farmville’s treasures” by its locals, the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts is the only museum of its kind in central Virginia. The LCVA—more relevant now than ever—aims to serve as an intellectual and cultural bridge between Longwood University and its community at large through providing free admission and full access to all of its programs.
The mission of building a museum with relevancy, impact and a focus on community lays rooted deeply in the people themselves. “The LCVA was the museum I did not know I needed until I interviewed,” Executive Director Rachel Ivers raves. “Everyone I met, including people connected in no way to the search committee or organization, was enthusiastic about the LCVA.”
With more than 25 years of museum experience and prior to joining the LCVA in 2014, Ivers was the director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale and the exhibitions coordinator at Miami Beach’s Bass Museum of Art.
We recently spoke with Ivers about elitism in museums, fostering team spirit and the museum’s new thematic collecting focuses.
I am captivated by how collaborative LCVA’s staff is. Every department at the LCVA is excited to engage in new projects. How do you foster and maintain this spirit with your team?
Rachel Ivers: I think the best ideas and projects are collaborative at heart, and that everyone on the team has something important to contribute. Some of the most creative solutions to questions or issues have come from “outside” the department traditionally responsible. I try to encourage our team to take thoughtful risks, and then support the results of those risks no matter the outcome. The results usually exceed expectations, but if they do not, I’m not going to chastise the person who took the risk because that might foster a tendency to become risk averse in the future. I work very hard at not becoming involved in the details and minutiae of each department’s day-to-day activities, and prefer to review results rather than actively create them. This is the polar opposite of how I approached my museum career in its early years. I tended to micromanage my team, yet resented being micromanaged myself. Once I realized that paradox, I began to consciously modify my management style to foster a more creative and collaborative work environment.
Although unexpected and unprecedented, this current prolonged period of social distancing provides us with the opportunity to more deeply consider accessibility and connectivity issues across our community, especially among those communities that historically have been most underserved.
How has the pandemic affected your programming? What has the LCVA done in response?
Rachel Ivers: The COVID-19 crisis dramatically altered how we welcome our community to our galleries. Within hours of Virginia’s initial stay-at-home orders, we shifted our focus from in-person engagement to adapting and delivering these programs through online platforms, as well as via take-home activity sets distributed through our community partners’ existing social support programs – primarily the regular meal distribution to school-age children.
Over the past few years, we have been able to create and expand programs that are relevant to our place, time, and service area. Although unexpected and unprecedented, this current prolonged period of social distancing provides us with the opportunity to more deeply consider accessibility and connectivity issues across our community, especially among those communities that historically have been most underserved.
What range of artwork is in the LCVA’s collection? Do you have any favorite pieces in the collection?
Rachel Ivers: LCVA has approximately 4,500 works in the collection comprising 65% American Art, 10% African Art, 10% European/British Decorative Arts, 10% Chinese Art and 5% new thematic collecting areas (Civil Rights and Children’s Literature Illustrations).
LCVA collects with the intention that art encourages learning, fosters an understanding of the interconnection between disciplines, and emphasizes the importance of history and culture in a healthy, democratic society.
LCVA’s extensive collections are significant for the region, and are unique for small colleges and universities. Located in the small, rural community of Farmville, Virginia (Prince Edward County), LCVA serves a 14-county region, and is the only art museum in the region with a collecting focus on modern and contemporary Virginia artists. LCVA collects with the intention that art encourages learning, fosters an understanding of the interconnection between disciplines, and emphasizes the importance of history and culture in a healthy, democratic society. LCVA primarily collects American art in all media and disciplines (19th-century to present) with an emphasis on modern and contemporary Virginia artists. Notable American artists in the collection include Thomas Sully, Eastman Johnson, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Robert Rauschenberg, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, and Adam Pendleton. We also recently acquired works by Morgan Everhart and Susan Jamison.
The museum added two new thematic collecting focuses in 2018 as part of a new strategic plan. The first is art and design pertaining to human and civil rights and social justice, which has particular relevance to local history. At nearby Appomattox in 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, marking the end of the Civil War. More than 80 years later, Barbara Johns led a student walk-out of her high school at the south end of what is now Longwood’s campus, which became part of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, resulting in the end of segregation. The second focus is on children’s literature illustration, which has been inspired by LCVA’s annual exhibition of children’s literature illustration, co-presented with the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, which is one of the largest and fastest growing in North America.
It is difficult for me to select a group of favorite works from the collection because my preferences shift based on the project at hand. My list tomorrow will likely differ from today’s group of favorites. I think Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Joan of Arc (a smaller version of her monumental equestrian statue on Riverside Drive) would be among those, as would Susan Jamison’s Curious Walk (a fairly recent acquisition). I was also thrilled we were able to acquire one of Morgan Everhart’s paintings this past year – a bright spot in 2020! I’d also include works by Sally Mann, Lalla Essaydi, Ray Kass, and Adam Pendleton among my favorites today.
Before the LCVA, you were the Director of Exhibitions & Curatorial Affairs at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. What are some things you’ve learned from the change of role and location?
Rachel Ivers: I absolutely loved working at MOA, which now is the NSU Art Museum, when it was led by Irvin Lippman who is now the Executive Director at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. He is probably the greatest influence on my management style today. He motivated people to do their best because they wanted to be part of the something wonderful he was building toward. He dreamed big, and invited everyone along on the journey. I don’t think it would be an understatement to say that everyone on staff mourned his departure. With the change in MOA leadership, I realized that the new shift in organizational direction was not one I wanted part in. I felt it was embracing elitism at a time when the museum field was pushing hard away from that course. This philosophical friction was a primary motivator in my coming to the LCVA, which was perfectly aligned with my vision of what a museum should be. While it may be much smaller in every aspect – budget, staff, building, collection, parent organization – it feels like a much more impactful museum in terms of living our mission and fulfilling our strategic plan. Every program, exhibition, and event is free.
The leadership transition at MOA was rough, and I think that experience informed my first year at LCVA, which also had undergone a protracted period under multiple interim directors. Having just gone through something similar, I was able to empathize with the staff, university, advisory board, and community. I did not make any significant changes for several months because I really wanted a clear understanding of why structures and programs were in place. Things that may not have made sense to me three weeks into the role became clear as the months passed, and I think I was better able to evaluate what was working and what was not by being patient and willing to listen to stakeholders.
My quality of life improved dramatically, which was a little unexpected when I accepted the position. Farmville itself has many perks, and there is a very active social scene. Its residents are cultured and smart. The LCVA is located in historic downtown, which is movie-set, small town beautiful, especially during the holidays. I can walk to work if I choose, Richmond is a short drive, and DC is an easy day trip. I do not miss the hellish south Florida commute, which consumed three hours of my day. There is so much I can do with that extra three hours!
This philosophical friction was a primary motivator in my coming to the LCVA, which was perfectly aligned with my vision of what a museum should be. While it may be much smaller in every aspect […] it feels like a much more impactful museum in terms of living our mission and fulfilling our strategic plan.
What are students most excited about at the LCVA? Is it similar to the rest of the community around Farmville?
Rachel Ivers: Our Art after Dark series is probably the most popular with students. It’s a hands-on creative making workshop with a strong social component (beer, wine, snacks). We are very inclusive, and I think Farmville is, as well. I think we appeal to students because we are approachable – our visitor services team is composed almost exclusively of college students, and our staff is relatively young. In addition to Longwood University, Hampden-Sydney College is also located in Farmville, so the town itself does tend to be very “young.”
What upcoming projects are you working on?
Rachel Ivers: I’m currently working with our collections manager on several areas of renewed focus within collections, including a significant rehousing of the permanent collection within the existing space. He has spent the last year or so developing a plan to convert to high density mobile storage, and I’ve been writing and submitting fundraising proposals to ensure the conversion takes place in the next two-three years. We are also revising our collecting plan to include the new collecting areas of civil rights/social justice and children’s literature illustration.
Alex Grabiec, Curator of Exhibitions, and I are working on two long-term exhibition projects – Vessel, which explores literal and figurative uses of that term through art of all eras, and a retrospective of the work of folk artist Eldridge Bagley. They are very, very different projects, but I am excited about the opportunity to flex my mind in different directions.
We also have plans to continue redeveloping another downtown building to showcase film, theatre, music, and spoken word in an intimate setting. High Street Theatre was placed on hiatus until social distancing protocols have returned to pre-pandemic levels. This should have opened this past fall.
We’d like to thank the LCVA team, especially Rachel Ivers and Alex Grabiec, for their support of A Women’s Thing and YCG Fine Art’s current online exhibition “Off Canvas.”