British Art Center prepares for refurbishment

The British Art Center had previously hesitated to undertake the project due to the labor involved in moving the departments’ collections.
The British Art Center had previously hesitated to undertake the project due to the labor involved in moving the departments’ collections. Photo by Kamaria Greenfield.

With Yale University Art Gallery renovations complete as of last December, Yale’s art community is shifting its attention across the street to the Yale Center for British Art as the museum gears up to begin the first phase of its 2013 refurbishment project.

In October 2012, the British Art Center released a 200-page report outlining its plans for future steps toward the preservation of the building, famed architect Louis Kahn’s last major architectural work. The refurbishment project, which is just one segment of the center’s comprehensive conservation plan, will involve the restoration of the Prints & Drawings and Rare Books & Manuscripts departments, as well as the study room on the second floor. Set to begin this summer, the project marks the center’s first major construction undertaking since its roof was renovated in 1998.

“The refurbishment is both an ending point and a beginning point,” British Art Center Director Amy Meyers said. “This inaugural project sets off a new age for the building.”

Cecie Clement, the British Art Center’s deputy director, noted that the restorations are long overdue — the two curatorial departments have not been refurbished since the center opened in 1977. While the plan does not call for drastic changes to the rooms, Clement said restoration work is necessary for refreshing the departments’ “tired” look.

The center had previously hesitated to undertake the project due to the intensive labor involved in moving the departments’ books, prints, drawings and manuscripts from one space to another, Clement said.

“The thought of moving the majority of our collection has just been so daunting,” Clement said. “But 30 years have gone by, and now we’re going to bite the bullet.”

While the rooms that house the Prints & Drawings and Rare Books & Manuscripts departments go through the refurbishment, their over 85,000 combined works — including 35,000 rare books and manuscripts — will be stored in the second- and third-floor exhibition spaces. These floors, which are reserved for temporary exhibitions, will be closed to the public beginning late summer until fall 2013, while the permanent exhibition on the fourth floor will remain on display throughout the refurbishment.

George Knight ARC ’95, the project’s lead architect, explained that all of the changes aim to adapt the building’s design to modern safety regulations and technology. Citing improvements like new power outlets and carpeting, he added that the project’s goal is to reinvigorate, rather than to change, Kahn’s original vision.

“Every time I tell someone that I’m working on the YCBA, there’s always a pause, a look of fright on their face,” Knight said. “They think we’re going to tamper with the design of the building, which is considered one of the most important buildings of modern architecture.”

Parts that have fallen into disrepair include the frayed and yellowed wall linens and the sun-bleached woodwork, Knight said. He observed that at one area, where the carpet is particularly worn, visitors are able to see the concrete floor underneath.

“Once [Kahn’s] building is spectacularly finished, [it] will sing again in a very special way,” Meyers said.

While the refurbishment is taking place, public programming that usually occurs on the second and third floors will be relocated to the British Art Center lecture hall or to the YUAG. Clement said that such exchange between the two galleries began during the YUAG’s own renovations, when the center provided space for the gallery’s programs.

Louis Kahn taught at the School of Architecture from 1947 to 1957.

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