After less than a month as the new director of the art museum, Bruce Boucher has just settled into his newly repainted office. On his desk, there is a small white box. “An artifact,” says Boucher with a wink. “Would you like to see it?” He unwraps tissue paper to reveal a mug; it has the Cavalier logo on it and the word “Bruce” printed in block letters.
Before his arrival at UVA in March, Boucher was curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago and a professor of art history at University College London. He wrote The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time, and Italian Baroque Sculpture. He is an American educated at Harvard and Oxford, but after living in England for 32 years, his speech carries traces of the British Isles, especially when he talks about his affection for tea in the afternoons.
He feels that he has arrived at the University of Virginia Art Museum at a moment of opportunity. “The museum has the prospect of being far more prominent, both at the University and among the larger community,” says Boucher. “It has been an underdeveloped asset. We have a good collection that could be even better, and we could more meaningfully link our work with other fields of study at Virginia.”
Boucher argues that art has an important and often overlooked role in education. “It teaches us about people who are unlike us while emphasizing that which is universally human,” he says. “It transports us and exhilarates us. In difficult times, education can become vocational, but we must remember that after food, we need food for thought.”
Along with Elizabeth Turner, vice provost for the arts, Boucher has big plans for the museum. It will be closed this summer for the second phase of renovations that will include changes to the second floor, new lighting and climate control that will allow the museum to maintain accreditation. “Accreditation allows us to get better loans of art from other museums,” says Boucher. The Bayly Building, where the museum is housed, was built in 1932, and Boucher says it is too small to display the permanent collection, let alone special exhibitions. Long-term plans include an addition to the museum space and a further development of the Arts Grounds, which includes Ruffin Hall, the School of Architecture and the performing arts and art history departments.
“I think Jefferson would approve of an increased emphasis on the arts,” says Boucher. “He thought laterally, like an artist. He had a collection of art and curiosities at Monticello and later took it to the White House.”
This fall, the museum will host an exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s original plans for the Academical Village. It will be followed by an exhibit of Chinese sculpture from the Sackler Collection at Columbia University and an exhibit featuring Man Ray and the influence of African art on the avant-garde of the 1920s and ’30s.
Boucher has an intellectual connection to the Academical Village, having written a book about Palladio, the architect who was Jefferson’s main inspiration. “Goethe wrote something about Palladio that I believe applies, in extension, to the architecture of Jefferson,” says Boucher. “Goethe wrote, ‘There is something comparable to the power of a great poet [in Palladio’s architecture] who, out of the worlds of truth and falsehood, creates a third whose borrowed existence enchants us.’”
Likewise, Boucher seems ready to marry the practical and the imaginative, the academic and the artistic, in his endeavor to re-create the museum.