White oak panels and streams of natural light welcome visitors to the newly renovated Yale Center for British Art, which reopened on May 11 after a 16-month conservation project that celebrates the vision of the center’s original architect while welcoming it into the 21st century.
The center’s reopening marks the completion of the third and final phase of the “Building Conservation Project,” started by YCBA Director Amy Meyers GRD ’85 in 2002. After Paul Mellon ’29 donated his collection of British art to the University in 1966, Louis Kahn, who also designed the adjacent Yale University Art Gallery, was commissioned to design the Center, though he died before its completion in 1976. The most recent project both restored the Center’s public spaces and updated its infrastructure while upholding Kahn’s original plans for the space.
“It wasn’t that we were trying to make this building look new, like it was opened yesterday,” said Daphne Kalomiris, one of the architects who worked on the project. “We want to accept that it’s a 40-year-old building, but bring it to this century in terms of systems and upgrades and essentially refresh it. It needed a glass of water.”
Deputy Director Constance Clement, who oversaw building conservation, emphasized that much of the project was designed to correct the “architectural drift” of aesthetic details that over time had shifted from Kahn’s original design.
The renovation itself was a near-surgical procedure, Kalomiris said. The team made “incisions” into the building that improved the infrastructure while ensuring it would look essentially the same upon reconstruction, she continued. As the team disassembled the building, one of the most exciting parts was delving into the building’s history and uncovering unknown aspects of Kahn’s design along the way, said Nikolaos Tombras, a project architect.
“There is this sense of … what’s permanent and what’s temporal,” Kalomiris said. “Both work together to make this building so beautiful.”
Some of the most costly changes to the building are not immediately obvious to gallery visitors. Infrastructure and systems were overhauled and improved, while “eyesores” such as obvious security cameras or wire molds were removed, Tombras said.
The gallery’s renovation also allowed for a rehanging of the Mellon Collection, which now has the most paintings on display since it has the center’s debut in 1977. Throughout the gallery, the story of British art is told through both chronological and thematic narratives, reflecting the evolution of British art through time said Scott Wilcox, the deputy director for collections. Starting on the fourth floor with the Tudor period and moving down to the second floor, visitors can walk through a temporal narrative of artwork, he added.
“We feel we are at our best now,” Wilcox said. “The other thing is that I think — and we have gotten some feedback to suggest this is true — that the arrangement actually tells the story of British art very effectively, and certainly in a much more global way than earlier installations.”
In the newly rehung Long Gallery, which Wilcox called the “great hit of the reinstallation,” densely hung panels of artwork are grouped by thematic elements ranging from coastlines to the British Empire. The gallery, which runs nearly the length of the fourth floor, returns to Kahn’s original vision of a study space and contains over 200 paintings.
By hanging thematically tied paintings from across centuries together, students can observe how treatment of different themes changed over time, Wilcox said. Professors will be able to request certain themes be hung in the Long Gallery for students to study over the course of a semester.
Other renovated spaces include the first-floor lecture hall, which now has increased accessibility and simulcast capabilities, Meyers said. The Collection Seminar Room will offer classes a chance to “close study” artwork by natural light and will first be utilized to its full extent this fall, Wilcox said.
This fall, the Center welcomes two new exhibitions, one that surveys Britain’s “tradition” of marine painting and another that displays the work of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
“We are delighted that our renewed galleries, courts and public spaces are now welcoming students, faculty, visiting scholars and the public to the Center with such a visually captivating experience,” Meyers said. “Ours is one of the most outstanding institutions devoted to the art and culture of a single nation. The challenge that we embrace enthusiastically is to understand, celebrate, interrogate and critique that culture in a global context.”