Art shielded from renovation

A stately stone statue of Buddha on the second floor of the Yale University Art Gallery sits against a backdrop of plastic tarp. But it’s not an ironic juxtaposition that makes an artistic statement — the tarp is intended to protect the art during the renovation of Egerton Swartwout’s Old Art Gallery, slated for completion in 2012.

To avoid having to remove the art during the art gallery’s renovation, conservators are in the process of installing barrier walls and vibration monitors to protect the works in the Louis I. Kahn Building. Though sections of the gallery are currently blocked off and some works — such as Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Night Café” — were temporarily removed, most pieces will be back on view once the protective measures are fully installed Nov. 17.

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In the planning phases of construction, the gallery decided to keep the Kahn building open during the three-year renovation, said Chief Conservator Ian McClure, so that gallery resources will remain available to students.

McClure said he is working with the contractors of the project in order to stay informed of possible dangers to the art. He and his team of conservators have been measuring baseline vibration levels in the museum with seismic meters. Intense vibrations can cause the surface layer of paintings to flake off, McClure explained. As construction progresses, the conservators will install an alarm system to detect whether the level of vibration caused by the construction will damage the artwork, he said.

“If we’re very worried about a particular method, the workers can see if there’s another way,” he said. “If that can’t be done, the gallery will then consider moving stuff.”

But the wing of the third floor gallery adjacent to the Swartwout building will not look the same even after the currently blocked-off sections reopen.

Curator of European Art Laurence Kanter said he took the temporary closure as an opportunity to “fine tune” some displays. Several of the Kahn building’s movable walls, which are held in place by sticks at the top and bottom, were rearranged, as were several paintings, to adjust to the spatial restrictions caused by the construction.

Perhaps most significantly, Kanter moved Van Gogh’s “The Night Café” to a different location that is immediately visible to viewers as they walk into the third floor of the gallery. (“The Night Café,” previously displayed on an interior side wall, is the subject of a legal dispute: Pierre Konowaloff sued the gallery last March, claiming ownership to the painting. The University filed a motion to dismiss last month.)

“We lost about five to 10 feet of space at that end of the building,” Kanter said. “So what was already a tightly packed installation had to be tighter still.”

Most other departments are unaffected by the recent changes. Frederick Lamp, curator of African Art, said his department is untouched by construction at the moment, and curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Jennifer Gross said her department is one of the least influenced by the renovations.

When the Swartwout building was cleared out last January to prepare for the renovation, collections from the American Paintings and Sculpture and American Decorative Arts departments, which were housed in the building, were sent to museums across the country in the gallery’s largest traveling exhibition to date, titled “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The exhibition will be on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama through Jan. 10.

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