Site-specific art finds home in redesigned Gallery

The 14-year renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery’s three component buildings has culminated in site-specific spaces for certain works of art.
The 14-year renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery’s three component buildings has culminated in site-specific spaces for certain works of art. Photo by Vivienne Jiao Zhang.


When the Yale University Art Gallery unveils its newly renovated and expanded space on Dec. 12, visitors will be able to view works of art in rooms specifically designed to enhance their appeal.

The opening of the renovated Gallery will signify the culmination of a $135 million construction project that has spanned 14 years and involved the work of a diverse design staff. In addition to head architects Duncan Hazard ’71 and Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects, the Gallery employed administrators and curators alike to collaborate in creating exhibition spaces that will be suited to each wing’s specific collections.

“Each of the curators had an opportunity to shape the galleries,” said Maura Scanlon, the Gallery’s public relations director. “Each of the galleries has a character that is reflective of the art that it is exhibiting.”

The renovation’s concern for the nature of the artwork in each space may be part of a recent movement within architecture to move beyond the conventional “white box” approach for gallery construction, School of Architecture critic Martin Finio said.

“It is a question of whether architecture should be a background or a catalyst,” he explained.

He added that while the debate about whether architecture should be subservient to art is ancient, architects have only recently begun exploring the ways structures can complement the artwork displayed within them and enhance its quality.

Finio cited the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, built in 1997 in Bilbao, Spain, as “a poster child of architecture taking the front seat in relation to art.”

School of Architecture Director of Exhibitions Brian Butterfield said, however, that he does not see the renovations on the Art Gallery as a part of the new wave of contemporary museum expression. Butterfield noted that because the construction project is more about the “adaptive re-use of old space” than the creation of new space, he does not think it demonstrates the same methodology as the one behind the Bilbao Guggenheim.

While Butterfield said he thinks that the organization of distinct rooms in the Gallery’s new design does not align with this movement, he nevertheless said he imagines the involvement of the curators in the design process facilitated the creation of non-generic gallery spaces tailored specifically to the museum’s collection.

The Art Gallery already exhibits several pieces that demand sites with specific characteristics.

On an Art Gallery tour this Sunday entitled “Charged Spaces: When Art Exceeds Its Boundaries,” gallery guide Angie Shih ’14 discussed how the installation “Stacks,” created by Richard Serra ’62 ART ’64, incited controversy for taking up too much room in its original location. The installation, which features two rectangular masses of rolled steel standing 60 feet apart and parallel to one another, was originally placed in the Swartwout Sculpture Hall, one of the Gallery’s three component buildings.

Faculty at the School of Architecture expressed appreciation for the way in which sections of the Gallery function not only as display locations for art, but also intimate spaces for the viewer.

“At the YUAG we can pass from Kahn’s distinct modernist space into Swartwout’s Romanesque halls and experience the distinct effect a space can have upon the viewer,” Architecture professor and critic Bennett Dansby said in an email.

Scanlon agreed, comparing the intimacy of the redesigned European galleries to the stark feel and high ceilings of the wings that house modern and contemporary art.

Architecture critic Sunil Bald said in an email that the concrete block walls of the Kahn Gallery are “a classic example” of art interacting with the space around it.

The opening of the Art Gallery’s expansion is slated for Dec. 12, 2012.

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