In 1977, an American Studies doctoral candidate named Amy Meyers arrived on Yale’s campus, just as the Yale Center for British Art opened its doors to the public for the first time.
Nearly 40 years later, Meyers is the center’s director, spearheading a Building Conservation Project committed to restoring architect Louis Kahn’s seminal work of museum architecture and in the process, reexamining the YCBA’s overall direction.
The Conservation Project, currently in its third and final phase, focuses on the restoration of the building’s gallery spaces and lecture hall, guided by a conservation plan developed by architects Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee from renowned British firm Inskip + Jenkins, in concert with the center’s deputy director, Constance Clement, who oversees the Building Conservation Project. In order to complete the project’s third phase, the center has been closed to the public since January 2015, and is set to reopen in March 2016.
While the project has made much of the center’s collection inaccessible to the public, the closure has also given the YCBA’s staff time to reflect upon and refine the way the museum carries out various aspects of its mission as an institution for the display, study and promotion of British art and culture.
“It gives a museum, any museum, an opportunity to rethink what is their mission, who are their audiences, and how we communicate what it is that we want the public to learn and understand about the collection,” said Linda Friedlaender, the center’s senior curator of education.
While the project presents numerous opportunities to bring major improvements to particular elements of the building — such as improving accessibility for disabled visitors and implementing a suite of important mechanical systems upgrades, including security and fire suppression — many are skeptical about such an ambitious construction project when it involves a work of architecture of this status.
“To the ears of those who hear that it’s being renovated, there’s sometimes a sense of alarm that the building might lose some of the formal qualities and details that are [its] signature,” said George Knight of Knight Architecture LLC, the firm responsible for translating the conservation plan into a feasible architectural project. “I would want them to be assured that this is going to be a most respectful renovation that’s deeply informed by research of the original building and that painstaking measures are being taken to sustain [its] glorious qualities.”
PRESERVING WHILE MODERNIZING
Meyers’ directorship began in 2002 and the conservation plan quickly became one of its central initiatives, signaling a shift in the center’s relationship with its building. Although the YCBA had always acknowledged the building’s architectural significance, making the leap from passive recognition to active stewardship was an important step.
“The most important thing is that this is a conservation project—not a refurbishment or a renovation project,” Meyers explained. “It’s about bringing back things that may have drifted a bit, that have moved away from their original purposes.”
The center began work on its conservation plan in 2002, embarking on a process that would involve almost a decade of research spent sifting through various kinds of historic documentation, culminating in the plan’s completion and its publication by Yale University Press in 2011. Although such plans are widely used to inform the restoration of historic structures in the United Kingdom, they are rarely made for buildings in the United States, Meyers noted, making the center’s choice to complete one particularly unique.
“The plan endeavored to identify the critical, culturally significant aspects of the building design, and to ensure that those survived and were conserved,” Knight said.
Regarding any changes to the building, Clement said, the conservation plan should seek to ensure that any possible modifications reflect Kahn’s singular vision for the center.
The conservation plan began partly as a way to deal with issues of architectural drift — a phenomenon in which certain aspects of a building move away from their original design.
“There were just very subtle things, small things — a door handle would be taken off and put back on upside-down; an elevator panel would be changed … but these subtle things started to accumulate,” Clement said. “So we just wanted to be more aware of the features that make the building so special that we want to retain.”
To avoid potential future maintenance and conservation issues, Meyers added, the need for a conservation plan became apparent.
Knight said that while certain features – such as security systems and sprinklers – had not been explicitly mentioned in the conservation plan, other aspects of the building were taken directly from it. He noted, for example, that the galleries’ wall and floor coverings were all elements from the original building that his firm was able to replicate exactly, procuring materials such as Belgian linen and wool carpet from their original sources.
The building conservation project has also restored several YCBA spaces to the uses originally proposed by Kahn, Knight said. For example, a pair of glass doors in the center’s auditorium that had served as an emergency exit, but were actually meant to lead into the building’s Lower Court, will now be used as Kahn intended.
Other restorations include the creation of a “Long Gallery” on the center’s fourth floor, Knight said. Scott Wilcox, the center’s deputy director of collections, explained that the gallery will take the form of an exhibition space that runs nearly the entire length of the building.
The collection’s reinstallation in the refurbished gallery spaces will seek to respond to new trends in the scholarship of British Art as well as concerns that various Yale faculty members have raised, Wilcox noted.
“One of the things that will be more apparent in this display is a concern with issues of empire. In the displays at the YCBA in the past, we have devoted certain areas to smaller displays on India and so forth,” Wilcox said. “We are trying to incorporate more of this material, which presents the history of British art as a more ‘global’ enterprise than has been apparent in the past.”
COLLABORATORS NEAR AND FAR
Art Gallery Director Jock Reynolds said the YCBA and the YUAG have collaborated in the past, frequently lending works between their collections.
But Meyers noted that the two institutions had never jointly organized an exhibition until “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860,” which opened this past March. The idea for the exhibition was conceived partly as a way of keeping many of the YCBA’s iconic works on view through the center’s closure, said Laurence Kanter, the YUAG’s chief curator. Reynolds said he believes that the show marked an important moment in the YUAG and YCBA relationship.
“It set us on a path of real collaboration into the future, to the enormous benefit of Yale undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, research fellows and for the broader publics who visit both museums so actively on a daily basis,” Meyers said of the exhibition.
Kanter explained that he “hand-selected” seven YCBA works to hang in the European galleries across the street alongside pieces from the YUAG’s permanent collection. The display marks the first time that works from the center’s collection have been incorporated into the YUAG’s European paintings galleries, Meyers noted.
“[The incorporation of YCBA works into YUAG collections] benefits all of us when we see our works incorporated into the much broader context of European art,” Meyers said.
Kanter said that after the “Critique of Reason” exhibition closed, many of the works displayed were taken to form a second exhibition in the gallery, that will be on display through Nov. 29, when the pieces will be sent back to be reinstalled in preparation for the center’s re-opening in the spring of 2016.
The center has also engaged in other collaborative projects that have allowed it to keep works from its collection on display throughout the closure. Meyers cited an exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago titled “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840,” for which the center was the largest institutional lender. In addition, the YCBA is collaborating with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on an exhibition of George Stubbs paintings from the Center’s collection, eight of which will be on display in the English gallery of the Met’s European Paintings wing through Nov. 8.
Katharine Baetjer, the curator of European Art at the Met who negotiated the loan on the museum’s behalf, explained that the paintings helped fill gaps in the Met’s own collection of British art.
“The collection of 18th-century British paintings at the MMA is almost exclusively portraits, as with most American museums,” Baetjer said. “Paul Mellon’s holding of sporting art and of Stubbs, which he presented chiefly to the YCBA, is the finest anywhere.”
Baetjer added that while the two institutions have collaborated in the past, this venture marks the first time that an exhibition at the Met has been composed entirely of works from the center’s collection.
ART BEYOND THE MUSEUM
The collaborative spirit that the YCBA has cultivated with its museum partners has also extended into the center’s role as an educational institution. The YCBA has used the closure as an opportunity to work with groups in the Yale and New Haven communities focused on fostering literacy and professional development for teachers.
“We want to make our collection as accessible and useful for as many different teaching purposes as it can be used for, while still being true to the art history of the objects,” said Cyra Levenson, associate curator of education at the center. “So it’s more like we’re ‘inviting’ our educator colleagues to use the center as a resource, but we’re not producing the content and delivering it to them — we’re really working with them so they can develop it themselves.”
Despite the closure, the center’s Education Department has continued offering two of its major programs for educators, which provide professional development opportunities for teachers and generate dialogue about ways the center can improve its educational programming.
The Summer Teacher Institute, a weeklong program held annually at the end of June, works with teachers to help them understand how visual art can support a variety of content areas in their curricula.
Levenson said that because those leading the program were unable to access the YCBA’s collection, they were forced to shift their focus and take a new approach, ultimately deciding to focus on drawing as a form of multisensory learning. Even after the building reopens, Levenson said she thinks it is likely the new approach will be integrated into the center’s regular Summer Teacher Institute.
The center’s “Visual Literacy Consortium” meetings have continued as well, bringing together K-12 educators on a bimonthly basis throughout the closure, Friedlaender said. Although the meetings have always taken the form of an open dialogue between members of the center’s Education Department and the teachers who attend, Friedlaender noted that during the closure in particular, they have become an opportunity to solicit feedback from teachers on how they use the center’s resources and how those resources could be adapted to better fit their educational and curricular needs.
Responding to feedback from its partners, the reopened YCBA will expand a number of its existing programs by adding opportunities for students to utilize the new facilities that the conservation project will bring.
The center’s “Out to Art” program began in 2009 as an effort to bring members of the special needs community into the museum. Working with Chapel Haven — a New Haven-based residential school and transition program for adults with cognitive disabilities — the program uses the YCBA’s collection and sensory learning strategies to develop communication and interpersonal skills, said Justine Menchetti, a teacher at Chapel Haven who co-leads the program with Friedlaender.
Menchetti added that after the center’s reopening, the traditional “Out to Art” program will be expanded to allow Chapel Haven students to participate in the center’s daily operations by working as volunteers.
An additional collaboration between the YCBA’s Education Department and the Yale Child Study Center’s Initiative for Girls and Women with Autism Spectrum Disorders will bring young women on the autism spectrum into the center’s galleries for a program that uses art-making as a way to improve verbal expression skills, said Kathy Koenig, the initiative’s director.
The program, which began shortly after the center’s closure last spring, has been held in a room at the Child Study Center during the Conservation Project, Koenig noted. Although the program has enjoyed a fair degree of success thus far, Koenig envisions an expanded program when the art classes begin meeting in the center’s refurbished gallery and classroom spaces in the fall. She said she thinks that meeting at the YCBA will offer direct engagement with the artwork and a chance for the young women in her program to get out into the community.
“We’ve been talking very much to our key partners about how to make the best of what we’ve learned,” Levenson said. “We really used this opportunity as time and space to think about how to keep moving forward with what we do best — that is to say, to help empower our constituents to use art objects to meet their own goals.”