The four-story, 59,000 square-foot glass and steel structure on the corner of Chapel and High streets was hardly meant to be invisible.
Now — 35 years after the completion of Louis Kahn’s building — the British Art Center is working to improve its visibility among undergraduates on campus, following the results of a demographics survey completed last spring to gauge visitation and presence, said the center’s director, Amy Meyers.
The survey found that undergraduates comprised just 2 percent of visitors to the center. Attendance at gallery events, such as screenings, lectures and concerts, is composed primarily of New Haven residents, visitors and graduate students, with much lower numbers of undergraduates, Meyers said. This means that approximately 2,000 Yale undergraduates visit the center annually, according to the center’s spokesman, Ricardo Sandoval ’06.
But even that figure seems high to Steven Li ’10, who said he had heard of the center because he lived a block away from it over the summer but has never visited. Though he said he had a vague recollection of performing there with his a cappella group, he has not seen a single work of art in the center.
“They’re really not very visible around campus,” Li said.
In fact, when a center administrator misquoted the 2 percent statistic during a student gallery guide training meeting last month, five student gallery guides interviewed in the past week believed the administrator’s misstatement that only 2 percent of undergraduates had ever heard of the center.
Though three center administrators contacted corrected the mistake, the gallery guides said they are still disappointed in the level of interest from their peers. The lack of interest stems from a lack of awareness, said Paulina Arnold ’12, the head student guide at the British Art Center.
“While we want to increase visitation, most people don’t even have a solid conception of British art or why they should come to our center,” Arnold said.
Meyers pointed out that the center’s mission — to provide both education and recreation — is contradicted if students remain unaware of its offers.
“It is the responsibility of this internationally renowned institution to be concerned with its visibility,” she said. “It seems so sad that our own student body is missing out on engaging with the collections. We’re very interested in brainstorming with student groups to increase undergraduate awareness.”
The British Art Center has the largest collection of British art outside England. The center’s collection, which Meyers called “one of Yale’s greatest treasures,” is comparable to the collections in England’s Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Royal Collection combined on one campus, she said.
And history of art professor Imogen Hart expressed disappointment at the possibility that any undergraduate student — art major or not — had not paid the center a visit.
“One of the great things about art history is that nothing is irrelevant to it,” Hart said. “Any student in any discipline can gain the cultural awareness that will benefit them not only in their academic work, but also in their overall education.”
Kahn’s design for the center, with its intentionally recessive entrance and understated signage, might be a reason why students might not notice the building, said Jules Prown, Paul Mellon professor emeritus of history of art.
“The entrance is definitely discrete. It’s not easy to see from the street,” Prown said. “The signage question of size and font was given careful consideration. It’s not the kind of place you would slap neon signs on.”
Prown, whose book “The Architecture of the Yale Center for British Art,” was reprinted by Yale University Press earlier this year, said there was a lot of “wrestling” at the time of the center’s creation regarding the creation of an entrance to an unorthodox museum.
“But it’s a big building,” Prown added. “People should know it’s there.”
Paul W. Mellon, whose gift established the center in 1966, demanded that his name not be associated with the center and that no title be emblazoned on the outside of the building. This lack of noticeable signage contributes to students’ lack of awareness, Arnold said.
“Mellon wanted [the center] to be a warm teaching space, not a big scary museum,” she said. Three students interviewed said they did not know where the center was located.
“I know it’s an art center, and people often use it as a landmark when giving me directions,” Abiola Ayanfalu ’13 said. “But I couldn’t say where it’s located.”
Echoed Joel Oblizalo ’12: “Isn’t there a British art museum on York Street?”
But Sandoval said students are meant to be the major audience for the center’s offerings.
“At the center, students are always a priority,” he said. “We aim to make our world-class collections and research materials available to them.”
To increase the number of students taking advantage of center resources, the Bristish Art Center plans to focus more on walk-in visitation by students this year, rather than special events for students, which are already the main draw for undergraduates, Meyers said. To this end, the center urged student tour guides in a recent training meeting to concentrate efforts for this year on greater undergraduate awareness and attendance.
Meyers said student guides are the primary liaisons between the center and Yale College, although Facebook is becoming another valuable resource.
The “Yale Center for British Art Student Guides” page on Facebook features information and photos of events, exhibitions and the center’s collection. The page currently has 204 fans at Yale.
The Yale University Art Gallery, located in another Louis Kahn building across the street from the British Art Center, does not have problems with undergraduate visibility, said spokeswoman Ana Davis. She cited the 575 Yale courses that met in the gallery this past year as the major source of undergraduate visitation at the gallery. She said the gallery also reached out to students through student guides, Facebook, newspapers and word of mouth.
The British Art Center’s collection of over 2,000 paintings include major paintings by William Hogarth, J. M. W. Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and Canaletto.