Remembering Our Summer Burn at the Herm

This week feels like the perfect opportunity to recap some major things that happened at the Hermitage in 2017, for one reason in particular– this weekend is the anticipated opening of our friends at the Renwick’s No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man exhibit in Washington, D.C. (March 30, 2018-January 21, 2019).  For those of you who visited recently or follow the Hermitage’s social media, you may recall that we hosted an out of the ordinary exhibit last summer called, The Art of Burning Man.  And guys, it was EPIC.

The exhibit certainly left its impact on the community here, well after the lingering days of the Virginia summer.  Whenever I meet someone new and tell them where I work, their first reaction is, “Oh! I wish I had/I attended that Burning Man opening/closing party!”   It was and continues to be the talk of the town and we all still feel so proud to have been part of bringing that special magic of Burning Man to Norfolk, in a setting like the Hermitage.  And we’re excited that even afterwards, some of artists we befriended will be featured at the Renwick’s own exhibit this year.

If you would love a hard-copy record of the exhibit with stunning professional photos, we do still have the exhibit catalog available from our museum gift shop! They are $25 + tax and museum members get a 10% discount!

And now, a brief write-up about the exhibit by colleague Carrie Spencer:

Exhibit photos captured by Yuzhu Zheng

What I learned about the art of Burning Man:

At first glance, the Hermitage Museum & Gardens, a small Arts and Crafts-style estate located in Norfolk, Virginia, is an unlikely venue to host artwork once displayed at Burning Man; however, ‘out-of the-ordinary’ ideas are what drive Hermitage programming and exhibitions. We are known for the unusual and for offering unique arts and cultural experiences in the region, making Burning Man a perfect fit. As we wrap up The Art of Burning Man exhibition at the Hermitage Museum & Gardens I begin to reflect on our accomplishments and all that we have learned. We were optimistic about how the show would be received but have been blown away by the incredible response and are thrilled with how the exhibition and its programming evolved. Being a small and nimble museum allowed us the necessary flexibility in curating a community driven, collaborative exhibition.

Our Executive Director, along with staff, began developing the exhibition idea in early 2016. During this process, I was fortunate enough to attend Burning Man and a regional Burning Man event which helped me gain a much better understanding of the culture and community of Burning Man; something I could never have gained simply by researching the artists and artwork. Through this invaluable experience that I brought back to the museum we realized that the art from Burning Man cannot be separate from the culture of Burning Man. It became important to us to incorporate aspects of the culture and the event in our nearly 5-month long exhibition.

Installing the large-scale artworks on our 12 acres of waterfront gardens and grounds was the easy part, relatively speaking. How we could incorporate the culture of Burning Man and convey that to the public was the greater challenge. Having the artwork simply sit on our property for 4.5 months would not truly embody Burning Man. We needed more. We asked ourselves “How can we convey Burning Man to our visitors? How can we integrate our community with the Burning Man community? How can we educate the public about this artwork, the artists, and about Burning Man?”

There were three things that were essential in our attempt to answer these questions.

  • Theme Camps: A big takeaway from my experience attending Burning Man were the community contributions that occur in the form of theme camps; whether the camp offers hair washing, omelets for breakfast, workshops, or art-making activities these camps each contribute to providing meaningful experiences to the community as their gift. I found, in my own experience, theme camps to be just as essential as the sculptures at Burning Man. Visiting various camps provided me opportunities to connect with others, collaborate, learn new things, and at times simply have fun. To integrate this aspect into the exhibition programming we invited community members, organizations, and Burners to offer contributions during our evening exhibition hours.

We hosted DJs, artist demonstrations, art-making activities, yoga lessons, improv comedy performers, dancers, and much more. All of these individuals and organizations donated their time and talents to our exhibition as a gift to the community, as a way of being a part of something much larger than themselves, and as a means of connecting with others. It allowed the community to become involved with the exhibition, take ownership of it, and share their gift with the public.

  • Volunteerism: We learned early on that volunteerism is heavily encouraged within the Burning

Man community. This aspect was easy for us, as the Hermitage is accustomed to working with volunteers on a regular basis. We recruited volunteers to help with the installation and deinstallation of the artwork, both inside the museum and outside on the grounds. We asked volunteers to serve as docents to help educate the public about the artwork, the artists, and about Burning Man. We created a volunteer group that we referred to as Burning Man Ambassadors and who helped us spread the word throughout the region about this experience coming to Norfolk.

  • The Principles: Incorporating the principles was an obvious aspect of Burning Man culture for us to include in our attempt to embody the ethos of Burning Man. Participation, Communal Effort, Self-Expression, and Inclusion were all emphasized in our programming efforts and aligned well with Hermitage practices.

Incorporating these important components into our exhibition and programming helped us to integrate our community with the Burning Man community. It allowed us to educate the public about the artwork, the artists, and about Burning Man more than museum labels or brochures could. And it enabled us to create interactive, participatory and shared experiences that created a lasting impression on our visitors. In this regard, we were successful. Through this we were able to establish community partnerships, gain community input, and build lasting relationships.

Throughout this experience I learned that Burning Man art is not limited to the art objects. Burning Man moves beyond the idea that there is an artist who creates art and an observer who enjoys it.  This is different from what usually occurs in the traditional museum setting. At Burning Man, the participants (referred to as visitors in the museum world) do not just admire the art, they become a part of it. The artworks are not just objects, they engage participants and demand interaction; they create specific environments and places to visit and pay homage to. Our visitors became participants. They attended our evening programs by gifting contributions to the community and the exhibition. They helped build the artwork alongside the artists during the installation and helped in breaking down the artwork. They continued to come back week after week to care for the artwork. They volunteered as educators and they interacted with the artwork as each artist intended.

At Burning Man and at the Art of Burning Man exhibition, the art objects and the participants play a role in a much larger art experience; an interactive performance between the artists who dedicate a great deal of effort creating the work, the objects that are interactive and engaging, and the participants. This performance between the artist, the object, and the participant is the real work of art, in progress, during the annual event, but also extends beyond the event creating a performance piece in which every aspect of Burning Man helps to shape the art. Burning Man art happens every day, all year long and it happened in Norfolk this summer.

Carrie head shot Eleise Theuer

Carrie Spencer
Curator of Education and Contemporary Art Exhibitions
The Hermitage Museum & Gardens                            Photo by Eleise Theuer












…..And yes, of course we had a burn at the closing party! Check it out 



The Conservator is In

Despite this recent brush of cold weather, spring appears to be just around the corner in southeastern Virginia.  And that means flowers are waking up, the sun is shining once again, and the museum staff is preparing for all sorts of activities this year.

If you stop by the Hermitage sometime this month, you may notice that one of our large paintings with gorgeous, colorful floral elements is not on view in its usual place.  But don’t worry!  It’s just being conserved.  Work began this past Monday on this large beauty.


Stephen Reid (1873-1948), Rejoice Greatly, 1922

This work has been slated for conservation since 2010 (see Lauren Northup’s post from June, 2010 on this blog for reference!).

Normally, a conservator would pick up the painting and take it to his/her studio for treatment.  And then they would bring it back to us, magically transformed!  However, since this piece is so large, and the conservator was nice enough to go along with my crazy ideas, we converted what was previously a back gallery (and more recently a Virginia Stage Company “Dream Clinic” set) into a temporary conservator’s studio for the next few weeks.   This presented us with a wonderful opportunity to share the conservation process with our visitors, and to make it an educational moment. You can stop by in the next couple of weeks and peek at the process on-site, 10am-5pm Tuesdays-Fridays until March 30th!

The wonderful Fred Wallace, formerly Head of Conservation at the Mariner’s Museum in Hampton, and more recently, owner and Chief Conservator of Infinity Art Conservation Enterprises, has graciously taken on the project… and he has agreed to make the Hermitage gallery his studio for the next couple of weeks. He will be joined by his colleague, Tom Snyder, a gilt wooden objects conservator, on March 22 to address the frame.

When Florence was alive, this painting hung in the master bedroom in what was a more private space, even when the home opened to the public as a museum by 1942.  Nowadays, when there is not a temporary exhibition going on, it is usually on view in the upstairs painting gallery where it is a major focal point and admired by most of our visitors.

Stephen Reid’s Rejoice Greatly (1922) is a Hermitage visitor-favorite.  It was painted after the Allied victory of World War I in 1918 and features two young girls placing candles in paper lanterns, lighting the way home for returning troops. The figures are positioned amid a garden that features lively, vibrant flowers.  The subjects and details of the painting convey a feeling of deep appreciation for the sacrifices of armed service members returning from war as well as an air of celebration and quiet hope for the future.

The artist’s own daughter, Jessie, often served as a model in many of her father’s paintings, including this one.  According to archival letters from Jessie after her father’s death in 1948, she explained that the setting was based on the artist’s own garden in St. John’s Wood (London). The garden and the house were later destroyed during the second world war.


Prior to the start of his conservation work, Fred took several preliminary photos and closely observed some of the weak areas of the painting and frame: Since the painting has not undergone prior conservation, there was evidence that surface dust and grime had accumulated over many years.  Aging varnish further contributed to its overall “dingy” appearance.  There were also obvious losses in the frame.  The canvas was visibly loosening from the wooden frame and the canvas itself was beginning to sag, which posed a risk to aged, cracking paint which could continue to lift if not stabilized.

On Monday, Fred and I removed the painting from its frame so that he could begin his first phase, the structural work.

As we looked closely at the back of the painting, there was 1 hand-cut nail (cool!) and a few marks and hand-written notes, one of which read: “117 Abbey Road, London”–presumably the artist’s residence! There was also a hand-written note indicating that this was to be shipped to “William Sloane, Norfolk, Virginia.”

Now, I don’t want to give away too many details about the extent of Fred’s process because

1. I am not a conservator and can’t begin to explain the intricate details of his work with the same clarity and eloquence that Fred can.

2. This post is absolutely intended to be a tease for our upcoming program next week.  So I hope you will join us on Thursday evening, March 22, when Fred and his colleague, Tom Snyder, will talk more about the specific treatment process and considerations for this project.  Reserve your seat for this program here .

Personally, I find conservation to be an absorbingly fascinating field.  I wish I had the scientific skills required for such work.  Because I don’t, it will always be a bit like magic to me.  So I am selfishly excited for this work to be treated on-site so that I can see how the phases of treatment unfold in person every day.  Seeing the pockets of cleaned areas transform in contrast to the grimy areas is immensely satisfying.


Section of preliminary solvent test

Conservation is extremely important to museums to make sure that we are able to stabilize and care for the objects in our collections in the best ways possible.  Why?  Put simply, so that they may be enjoyed by future generations.  Although we do not have an in-house museum conservation department (maybe in 10 years, right?!?!), we have been extremely fortunate to work with fantastic experts in previous years to help care for many treasured items in our collection.

As you all probably know, the Hermitage began an adopt-an-artwork initiative in 2006 called “Mend our Broken Art” (a play on “heart,” just in time for Valentine’s day that year).  It was a fantastic program that gave the public an insider’s perspective to the  field and encouraged the community to actively participate in the conservation process through their own generous donations.  It created a stronger connection between the community and the objects in our collection and put us in contact with a variety of conservation specialists.  Although the MOBA program is no longer active (we are looking to revamp it in the near future!), conservation absolutely continues to be a priority for us today and we hope that this year’s conservation program emphasizes that.

As one can imagine, it can be expensive to bring in professional conservators for a collection of over 5,000 artworks.  And so while staying aware of current conservation priorities is really important, prevention measures are also especially crucial in order to mitigate the eventual need for conservation.  Of course, that can also be expensive!  And so we always appreciate donations to the museum throughout the year, which help fund such specialized care of our collections.  If you are interested in donating, feel free to stop in, or go online (yes, an admittedly shameless plug).

For those of you who have treasured artworks of your own, if you are interested in having a piece conserved, there are fantastic local resources available through the Virginia Conservation Association.

Hopefully this has enticed you a bit.   If so, please join us on the evening of March 22,  for this fantastic opportunity to hear from Fred Wallace and Tom Snyder about their work!

Event Details