Sara Monroe, M.D., an internal medicine professor in the medical school, completed her residency on the MCV Campus in 1983 and stayed on an extra year to serve as chief resident. She also completed her infectious diseases fellowship in 1991 at the medical school. She and her husband Paul have opened their art collection to the Richmond community in an exhibit at the Anderson Gallery.

The two headless sisters sit side-by-side on a red velvet bench, their glass hands lying listlessly in their laps. The life-size bodies are dressed in simple long-sleeved muslin gowns; they are without life or color.

At first, Sara Monroe hated the sculpture.

“It’s a really haunting piece,” says Monroe, an internal medicine professor and alumna of the medical school. “Most people respond really strongly to it.”

Monroe’s husband, Paul, a gastroenterologist with Gastrointestinal Specialists, Inc. in Richmond, purchased the artwork, an early work by famed sculptor Kiki Smith, while traveling in New York. Called “Little Sisters,” the sculpture was created in response to the artist’s sister’s AIDS-related death. When he brought it home, the piece did not receive a friendly reception.

“Our decorator said you can’t put headless people in your living room,” recalls Paul, the main collector of the couple’s art collection. So they allowed the piece to go out on loan. “It was borrowed by museums in Sweden, the Netherlands and across the U.S. All of a sudden, Sara missed the sisters.”

Now, she cites it as one of her favorites, perhaps in part because of the connection to AIDS, a disease she encounters regularly in her work as an infectious disease specialist. From Paul’s point-of-view, Sara’s journey to accepting and cherishing the piece is just as it should be.

“The ones you like right off the bat generally are not the best because they’re not very complex,” he says. “There has to be an edge, a bite to it. You have a real strong response and yet you think you don’t like it. And you think about it or dream about it and you realize the reason you reacted that way initially is because there’s something new and different and good about it.”

Drs. Sara and Paul Monroe in the Anderson Gallery.

“Little Sisters” currently serves as a centerpiece in “Knock, Knock! From the Paul and Sara Monroe Collection,” an exhibition of 42 works by 34 contemporary artists on view at VCU’s Anderson Gallery through July 31. The exhibition also includes work by such influential artists as Robert Gober, Tony Oursler, Elizabeth Murray and Jack Pierson, as well as emerging talents like Theaster Gates, Evan Holloway and Jeni Spota.

The Monroes initially started collecting art for the same reason many couples do: to decorate their home. After being exposed to increasingly diverse artists by neighbor Beverly Reynolds, owner of the Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, the couple began taking a more serious approach to collecting.

“The collection became about what sort of viscerally engaged both of us,” says Sara. “Paul got into other aspects of collecting, evaluating whether the artists had a future, things like that. For me, it was about needing to be emotionally engaged.”

For Paul, it became an intellectual pursuit, an activity he likens to medicine.

“In medicine, there’s often not a correct answer,” he says. “You sift through data and decide what’s significant. It’s not always two plus two is four. Art’s similar. You don’t know who has an idea that’s going to resonate with people five, 10 years down the road. You have to be open to new ideas, yet also be critical.”

While Paul takes the reins on collecting the art, both get enjoyment out of their now 20-year-old collection. They take monthly trips to New York, during which they’ll visit 50 to 100 galleries at a time, and have established lasting friendships with artists, collectors and gallery owners, as well as students and faculty at VCU’s School of the Arts.

“It’s really nice to have a quasi-creative outlet when medicine is what you do with the rest of your day,” Sara says. “Paul and I aren’t actually making art, but it still feels creative – viewing art, meeting artists, hanging out with art people. We go to a lot of the openings and lectures that are supported by the school. When visiting artists come to town, we have them over for dinner. Art has become a central structure in our life.”

One artist they’ve kept in touch with is VCU graduate Tara Donovan (M.F.A. ’99), a 2008 Macarthur Fellow and celebrated New York sculptor, from whom Paul purchased a piece during a student show at VCU.

“She’s still annoyed by how little I paid for it,” Paul says.

The Monroes opened a portion of their collection to the public for the first time with this summer’s exhibition at the Anderson Gallery, which highlights figurative pieces, or works that are symbolic of the human figure, from the couple’s collection. It’s a diverse and eclectic assemblage, much like the overall collection.

“I would characterize our collection as very personal and idiosyncratic,” Paul says.

“In our work we come into contact with so many different situations and people,” Sara adds. “I think having so many different types of media – sculpture, paintings – surrounding us feels really comfortable in some way.”