Megan Wynne; Title: Our Anatomy; 2010, acrylic paint on digital print (Chesapeake)

Megan Wynne; Title: Our Anatomy; 2010, acrylic paint on digital print (Chesapeake)

By Betsy DiJulio

Once upon a time, there was a little art center who lived in Virginia Beach…

But that was then and this is now. That homegrown art center is all grown up. It seems like just yesterday that the recently renamed and fully AAM-accredited “MOCA,” or Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, was the Virginia Beach Art Center in a ramshackle building near the oceanfront.

My husband and I moved to Virginia Beach in 1990, a year after the organization had taken up residence in its beautiful, then brand new, building at its current 2200 Parks Avenue address. Nine months later, I was hired as the education director where I was joyfully employed for 11 years under six (yes, six) directors. With friends still on staff after I left and the opportunity to review exhibitions for Portfolio and now, Veer, I know of what I write when I say that the last 20 years of the organization’s life has been a forward trajectory of baby steps and big leaps, growing pains, identity crises, internal restructuring, hires and fires, an architectural addition, interior enhancements, and a handful of name changes each intended to more clearly express a new stage in the institution’s evolution.

It appears that MOCA has finally shrugged off any inferiority complexes of the past, coming into its own as one of the mid-size guys in the big leagues: a crown jewel in which our region should take great pride. Never a Chrysler Museum wannabe, but sometimes viewed as standing in that grande dame’s shadow, it now appears that MOCA has stepped into the bright sunlight, fully embracing who it has worked hard to become.
On a recent Monday, a friend and I had the good fortune to tour the space with another friend, Alison Byrne, who came to America from Ireland as my intern, married a man she had met in the NAVY, had a beautiful baby girl, earned her master’s in art history from ODU, and worked her way up to MOCA’s Director of Exhibitions and Education.

Throughout our hour together, I was struck by how intensely cohesive and professional the museum’s programming has become, not to mention how visually slick and polished. With exhibitions and education now joined together—rather than being left separate and sometimes at odds, as these key functions are in many institutions—under the leadership of someone with Byrne’s knowledge of both arenas combined with her passion, vision, and warm, but no-nonsense, leadership style, there is a palpable sense that this organization is functioning like a small, hip and finely-tuned orchestra. And Byrne would be the first to give full credit to all members of that orchestra, or “the team,” as she refers to the staff.

There are new initiatives and fresh approaches to public programming for sure, but there are also many mainstays—like the audio tours that I originated “back in the day,” writing and recording them on Walkmans in my office—that have been polished, professionalized, and woven ever-more securely and seamlessly into the fabric of what this institution has become. The overall effect is striking.

This kind of reflection on the maturation of the organization seems especially appropriate given that one of the current exhibitions, the annual juried show entitled “New Waves 2013,” was juried by Carla Hanzal, a former curator at MOCA whose tenure overlapped with mine. And that another of the exhibitions, “Nexus,” showcases work from the Chrysler collection by artists who, at some point in the past, exhibited at MOCA.
Culled from work submitted by over 185 artists, the 33 who were selected for “New Waves” are a varied lot, yet the show was presumably juried and certainly installed to present their disparate pieces in a wide range of media as a crisp, contemporary reflection on current directions, if not trends. With many artists chosen from the local area, and quite a lot of photography, I was personally struck by the number of artists’ whose evocative pieces were based on a grid. Telltale signs of a fractured society searching for order? I couldn’t help but wonder.

“Nexus” celebrates common ground between MOCA and the Chrysler Museum, as mentioned above, with some of my favorite works from the Chrysler’s collection looking right at home on the handsomely color-blocked walls of MOCA: Christian Boltanski, John Chamberlin, Chuck Close (another grid), Red Grooms, and Whitfield Lovell.

Very cleverly, “Out of the Box” presents edgy contemporary sculptural art by eight artists in a guise with which the public is familiar: jewelry. Running a gamut from Joe Churchman’s historically inspired but bombastic and decidedly S&M black foam neoprene collars to Emiko Oye’s historically-inspired jewelry re-imagined in Legos, this show titillates both eye and mind with MOCA’s intelligent and creative installation enhancing the art without overpowering it.

I have mentioned ArtLab previously in the pages of Veer, but it seems its designers have once again outdone themselves with visually seductive, thoughtfully-designed, and fun interactive experiences for children and their adult companions. Bracketed by a comfy-cool reading lounge at one end and a video screening at the other are an interactive timeline, poetry wall, and contemporary form of “dress up” inspired b Oye’s jewelry.

Ironically, the older this old gal MOCA gets, the younger, hipper and more appealing she becomes.

New Waves 2013, Nexus, and Out of the Box: Trends in Contemporary Jewelry
Through April 28
Virginia MOCA
2200 Parks Avenue, VA Beach