The world’s first art museum on wheels—an “inspiration for the nation,” says a representative from the Smithsonian–opens today in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was called the Artmobile. At the dedication ceremony, the state’s governor declared that the project “initiates something new in the cultural and spiritual life of the Commonwealth which has never been done before anywhere.”
It took the staff of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts almost five years to get the Artmobile up and running. The Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs paid its operating expenses, about $11,000 per year, while Richmond department store Miller & Rhodes paid for the Artmobile itself: a $20,000, 34-foot-long air-conditioned trailer with museum-quality lighting and walls that hinged out to create a lean-to-esque exhibition space around the vehicle. The trailer was pulled around the state behind an enormous blue truck; at the wheel was William Gaines, the retired registrar of the Virginia Museum.
Visitors entered the Artmobile in small groups and were free to look at the art on display for as long as they liked. (Admission was free for schoolchildren and members of local women’s clubs; everyone else paid 25 cents to get in.) Meanwhile, a 15-minute mini-lecture explaining the significance of the works in the exhibition looped in the background. The lecture was very informal and was usually narrated by a local radio personality, so most visitors felt right at home.
For its first tour through the state, the Artmobile carried sixteen paintings by 15th- and 16th-century Dutch and Flemish “Little Masters”: Bosch, Brueghel, Cuyp, Jordaens, van Rhysdael and Terborsch. The museum had borrowed the paintings, worth about $500,000, from the collection of Walter P. Chrysler Jr. (Chrysler, an art collector and theater producer whose father founded the Chrysler Corporation, had an estate near Warrenton, Virginia.) In all, the Little Masters traveled 20,000 miles in their first 53 weeks on the road and had 60,000 visitors, mostly students who had never been to the brick-and-mortar museum in Richmond.
The Artmobile was so successful that other states began to plan similar projects. By 1965, there were four Artmobiles in Virginia and a handful of others in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, there are dozens of Artmobile-inspired museums on wheels in cities and towns across the United States and around the world.