End in sight for YUAG renovations

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Photo by Sharon Yin.

A 14-year-long renovation project will draw to a close as the Yale University Art Gallery gears up to open its doors to visitors in December 2012.

The $135 million construction project involves a sweeping restoration and rehabilitation of the Art Gallery’s existing space and an extension resulting in 69,975 square feet of exhibition space in total, Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds said at a press conference in New York City Thursday. Although construction on the Art Gallery will end in early March, it will take the museum’s staff the rest of the calendar year to reinstall the collections in their new spaces, said Duncan Hazard ’71 and Richard Olcott, the project’s head architects.

The renovation will reclaim all of the space in three buildings on Chapel Street that have housed the Art Gallery’s collections at various times since its opening in 1866: Street Hall, the Old Yale Art Gallery designed by Egerton Swartwout and the building designed by Louis Kahn that has remained open through the latest round of construction. The Art Gallery, which was founded in 1832, will now span across the entire Old Yale Art Gallery and into Street Hall, constructed by Peter Bonnett Wright and home to the Gallery from 1866 to 1928.

The renovations began in 1998, Reynolds said, when he spoke to University President Richard Levin about the need to improve the facilities of the Gallery in order to make the collections more accessible and to integrate the Art Gallery more fully into the intellectual life of the University.

“We were lucky that these three buildings were so fantastic,” Reynolds said. “We just needed to rehabilitate the originial historical architecture instead of moving to a new location. The original Trumbull Gallery [on Old Campus], which was torn down in 1901, is the only part that we haven’t reclaimed from the gallery’s history.”

Hazard and Olcott said they designed the renovation with the purpose of increasing the museum’s capacity as a teaching tool. Hazard and Olcott are two of nine partners at Ennead Architects, a firm known as Polshek Partnership until 2010.

The Art Gallery has expanded its educational facilities with The Nolen Education Center, which will be located on the first floor of Street Hall. The Center will include two seminar rooms for studying artworks, a library and faculty offices.

With the combined square footage of three buildings the architects said they will be able to design galleries better suited to the various collections.

“The whole curatorial presentation is being rethought,” Hazard said. “The objects will all be in spaces specifically designed to accommodate them.”

Hazard said that the Art Gallery’s design prior to renovation violated a “basic tenet of museum planning,” since its special exhibitions galleries were on the ground floor rather than the top floor. This left visitors feeling as if the gallery was continually under construction, since special exhibitions have to be installed and uninstalled and failed to draw visitors into the permanent collections.

But the Susman Galleries, a new suite of special exhibition galleries on the top floor that were funded by an $11 million gift from Stephen Susman ’62 announced in late December, would make a significant difference in people’s awareness of the overall collection, Hazard said.

The architects also tackled the challenges of designing an extension that would preserve the stylistic differences between the Art Gallery’s three component buildings.

“All three of them are of landmark quality, and all three have extreme personalities and represent different points in [architectural history],” Olcott said. While the 1953 Kahn building is one of the best-recognized buildings in the history of modernist architecture, the 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery adheres to an Italianate Gothic style and the 1866 Street Hall a Ruskinian Gothic.

Olcott added that in order to meld all three buildings, his team redesigned the connections between the buildings. The new structural elements will barely peek out from behind the historic buildings, Olcott said, in order to preserve the individuality of their facades.

Though Ennead Architects was responsible for the architectural design of the current renovation, the planning and the allocation of space was a collective effort between Art Gallery staff, administrators and curators, Reynolds said. For instance, the museum’s Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture Helen Cooper oversaw the renovations of the interior of Street Hall, which will house the gallery’s extensive collection of American art, guiding structural and aesthetic decisions to best display the art.

Reynolds said the renovated Art Gallery will better accommodate the growth of the its collection in recent years.

“Our collections have grown significantly over the past five years, particularly our new department of African art in the Kahn building,” Reynolds said. “We’re also opening a whole new department of Indo-Pacific art that will be debuting for the first time as will our new Coins and Medals department.”

To cope with this challenge, the gallery has incremented its staff by about 80 percent over the past 14 years, Reynolds said, adding that the collections once installed will be constantly rotated in order to display the vast holdings.

While the buildings were under construction, the Art Gallery stored a large portion of its collection at Yale’s Library Shelving Facility in Hamden, Reynolds said. He added that moving the gallery’s holdings to the Shelving Facility in 1998 was an unprecedented opportunity to document the art works. The museum installed digital photography and conservation laboratories at the Hamden facility, in order to create an online archive of the collections. In 1998 the Gallery had only 1,200 images of the pieces in the collection; today, Reynolds said, the archived images top 200,000.

The Yale University Art Gallery is set to officially reopen on Dec. 12, 2012.

Correction: Feb. 1

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds as stating that the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of African-American art has grown over the past five years. In fact, Reynolds was referring to the Art Gallery’s department of African art.

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