Gallery blends new and old

Gallery blends new and old
Photo by Yale University Art Gallery.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series exploring the development of the Yale University Art Gallery — which will officially reopen to the public on Dec. 12 — over its 14-year renovation process. Part 1 investigates how the gallery’s architecture and collections pay tribute to the YUAG of old while considering its changing place in the art world. Part 2 examines how the YUAG has grown into its role as a teaching museum. 

On the fourth floor of the renovated Yale University Art Gallery, a terrace sculpture garden looks out onto Chapel Street. Standing along the edge of the balcony, visitors are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the city and campus below. Like many of the gallery’s new additions, it is a tribute to both the institution’s past and present — a reminder that while the building’s foundation remains nearly as aged as the University itself, the YUAG has not closed its horizons to the future.

When the gallery officially reopens to the public on Dec. 12, it will celebrate not only the culmination of a 14-year-long construction project but also the debut of over 4,000 pieces of artwork that were either newly acquired or had previously been placed in storage. With a collection now totaling over 200,000 holdings and a facility of over 40,000 square feet of gallery display space, the expansion places the YUAG on par with some of the most renowned art museums in the world.

“We have striven broadly for excellence,” YUAG Director Jock Reynolds said. “Yale University now has in its art gallery, Center for British Art, Peabody Museum and libraries one of the greatest concentrations of art in any city of the world.”

Beginning with the restoration of the Louis Kahn building in 2003, the revitalization of the YUAG has been a long time coming. As early as 1994, architects Duncan Hazard ’71 and Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects — formerly known as Polshek Partnership — began drawing up master plans. The completion of the $135 million undertaking arrives at the tail end of what Reynolds termed “280 years of deferred maintenance,” and the process has involved large increases in museum staff as well as aggressive fundraising pushes through the onset of the recession in 2008.

But even as the gallery marches toward the future, it continues to commemorate the legacies of its past.

“Our architectural plan is a retracing of the gallery’s history,” Hazard said. “The artwork is taking back its original home.

OLD ART RESTORED

When curator Ruth Barnes arrived at the YUAG in 2010, she had just completed renovation projects at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. She accepted Yale’s offer of employment, she half-joked, because she had become addicted to the rigors of restoration.

Barnes is the curator of Indo-Pacific art, the gallery’s only completely new collection. Made possible by contributions from Thomas Jaffe ’71, the Indo-Pacific art department features artifacts and sculptures from ancient Southeast Asia, as well as one of the world’s best collections of Indonesian textiles, Barnes said.

While the gallery acquired two-thirds of its Indo-Pacific collection only three years ago, the majority of newly displayed pieces have been held in storage facilities for several decades. For some of the older work, years of dust-gathering have taken their toll.

Deputy Chief Conservator Carol Snow cited a Byzantine church mosaic as an example of an older piece that underwent heavy treatment before display in Street Hall’s renovated ancient art section. Many of the procedures worked to undo the effects of outdated methods, Snow said. When the mosaic was first excavated from Gerasa, Jordan in the 1920s, gallery employees reinforced the backing with concrete, which did not hold up over time. Seventy-five years later, the piece has been refurbished to go back on display.

The YUAG’s expansion project gave gallery staffers a chance to test and develop techniques for conservation and refurbishment. Methods employed include 3-D scanning, multispectral imaging and computer numeric controlled (CNC) devices. Snow said new acquisitions — of which there are 1,100 in total —  provide an opportunity for curators and conservators to identify new materials and develop new analytical methods over time.

When dealing with modern and contemporary works, Snow said the shifting function of materials is especially relevant. Some present-day artists purposefully expose their pieces to decaying effects of time, causing curators to question whether they should work to preserve these pieces at all. With artworks ranging from ancient to contemporary, Snow said each department presents its own set of unique and rewarding challenges.

As the conservation and collections departments transition from one-and-a-half buildings to the amalgam of three historic viewing spaces — the Louis Kahn building, the Old Yale Art Gallery and Street Hall — curators and conservators alike will continue to evaluate the evolving challenges of maintenance and upkeep.

A SEAMLESS TRANSITION

When the original Louis Kahn building first opened in November 1953, it was christened the “Yale University Art Gallery and Design Center.” As an undergraduate student, Hazard spent many nights at the center, which housed studios for art and architecture majors in addition to exhibition space. More than two decades later, he returned to draft the master plan for the largest expansion and renovation project in the gallery’s history.

But the legacies of the YUAG’s original architects persist in the renovated gallery’s design, which pays tribute to not only Kahn’s aesthetic sense but also to the vastly different styles of the other two buildings. In Street Hall’s Trumbull Room, which contains the gallery’s original donation from John Trumbull, the walls are painted bright red to honor Kahn’s original use of red wool fabric on the walls.

The YUAG’s three buildings share a single main entrance, and early visitors to the spaces have lauded Ennead Architects for the seamless yet meaningful transitions between different segments of the gallery.

“The integration of the three buildings is amazingly smooth,” School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said. “The way they flow is excellent, yet you don’t lose sense of the difference between them. Each maintains its own character.”

Chief Curator Laurence Kanter said the gallery’s individual exhibition spaces enabled each curatorial department to create a unique “flavor” to complement their collections. During the design process, Hazard and Olcott took into account the genre of art that would inhabit each section of the gallery. The European galleries are characterized by low ceilings and dark wall colors, whereas the modern and contemporary sections boast vast, 25-foot ceilings. Kanter described how the deep mulberry tones of his gallery were chosen to draw out the rich colors of the art.

Formerly home to the History of Art Department, Street Hall has been transformed from once “cannibalized classrooms” into galleries reminiscent of those envisioned during the 19th century, Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture Helen Cooper GRD ’86 said. But one feature of the hall is unmistakably modern: the glass elevator, topped with a vast skylight and sandwiched between steel staircases. Within Street Hall’s 1866-era structure, “there is the sense of light drifting down through the glass,” Hazard said.

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