With more than 40 years as a VMFA member and Council volunteer, Katherine "Kitten" Clarke has seen the museum transform from a staid institution with a narrow audience to a vibrant community anchor that feels welcoming to all. "In those days the museum was known as Fort Art," Kitten recalls, "and you held your breath when you walked through the door. Even as a member, you didn't feel comfortable walking on the grass."
As president of The Council in the 1980s and later as a member of the Board of Trustees, Kitten played a role in VMFA's evolution. "I was part of a team that sought to ensure that VMFA would continue to be a world-class resource for Virginia while opening those experiences to a wider audience," she notes. "Seeing the museum as it is today—with an expanded sculpture garden filled with people, new galleries, programs for families, young and old, students, out-of-town visitors—is very exciting."
While Kitten was working to expand the museum's impact, VMFA had a significant influence on her personally. "I was involved with a number of organizations in Richmond and served the Junior League on the local and national level, but my experience at VMFA stands out because it provided such incredible opportunities to learn," she explains. As part of her Council duties, Kitten worked with the curators and other staff to select new titles for the VMFA Shop and the library. During her terms as a trustee, she chaired the Accessions Committee that reviewed works of art that were being considered for purchase. "That was challenging, and the experience taught me so much about building a collection that has both depth and breadth," Kitten says.
The 1985 opening of the West Wing, which houses the Mellon and Lewis collections, was another highlight. As co-chair of the event, Kitten welcomed contemporary artists like Frank Stella, Chuck Close, and Andy Warhol, whose works Sydney and Frances Lewis had acquired, to VMFA. "For some reason, throughout the evening, I kept running into Andy Warhol, a favorite artist of my son, Will. Andy was delightful, and our encounters became something of a joke," Kitten recalls. "It was great fun but also made me realize how fortunate I was to be part of the museum."
Kitten's immersion with the museum also helped inspire an interest in art among her three children, and now, their families. Her oldest grandson, Charlie, has an online framed art business of his photographs. Will collects photographs and his wife, Eva, serves on VMFA's Canvas Advisory Committee. The couple's daughter, Izabela, participated in the museum's Teen Stylin' program for several years and is now graduating with a degree in apparel design and sustainability at the Rhode Island School of Design.
"VMFA is a jewel in our community and I'm so grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me," Kitten remarks. "It would not be possible to have had a better volunteer experience than I have had as part of The Council and our museum. I will certainly show my appreciation with a planned gift."
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