Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Art Gallery Extensions

Art gallery extensions are often the defining mark of a director’s tenure, and even more defining if a ‘name’ architect can be brought into the equation. A brief visit to the US last week showed me a few.

First up Thomas Lentz, the director of the Harvard University Art Museums, which incorporates the Fogg, Sackler and Bush Reisinger collections has secured the services of the great I.M.Pei ( he of the Louvre glass pyramids) to build a major extension to the Fogg Museum, into which the other two collections will now be housed. This work is under way and it’s difficult to tell from the model how it will look, but as befits what are primarily study collections, each of the three collections gets its own study centre, complete with dedicated lift and curators and conservators on hand. This is a wonderful service beyond the resources of most municipal art galleries, and perhaps only mirrored by other great US university collections. I am told at the Yale Centre for British Art, for instance, you can walk in off the street and ask to see any painting in the collection, whether or not it is on exhibition.

In the same town over the Charles River, Malcolm Rogers , the director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has just completed a new wing. In this instance the architect was Norman Foster ( he of the British Museum covered central courtyard), and Foster has taken the same theme by infilling a central courtyard, off which the new wing now sits. While to my mind architecturally succesful but not outstanding , what it has achieved is a spectacular re-presentation of the MFA’s very substantial holdings of colonial American art that must be almost the best in the country. The justification for extensions is of course often that the collections cannot be properly displayed in their current exhibition spaces, and in this instance certainly the new space has been put to impressive use.

And finally to Chicago, where James Cuno in his last act as director of the Chicago Art Institute before taking up his role as President of the Getty, oversaw the building of the new wing designed by Renzo Piano. The Art Institute is a very substantial gallery with its 100,000 sq m of exhibition space only rivalled in the US by the Met. This extension whilst adding to this floor space is a knock out. Opened earlier in the year, it is a seriously beautiful space of white walls, glass, light coloured timber floors and a translucent mix of natural and artificial light throughout. The top floor is dedicated to a rehang of their European 20th century holdings which must rival any outside Paris, and I wandered round in a daze not only being in the presence of so many familiar artworks, but so gorgeously hung. The final triumph is coming round a corner to be presented with a floor to ceiling view of the Chicago skyline with Frank Gehry’s auditorium in the foreground, in the form of an artwork seen through slightly diffuse blinds.

If you have only time to visit one of these head for Chicago.

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