At Harvard, three become one

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The college’s art is united under Renzo Piano’s roof

Three institutions will be united under one roof when the Harvard Art Museums reopens on 17 November after a six-year building project

Three institutions will be united under one roof when the Harvard Art Museums reopens on 16 November after a six-year building project. The Renzo Piano-designed scheme on the edge of the Harvard campus doubles the museums’ combined square footage, increasing gallery space by 40%. But the changes at Harvard extend well beyond bricks and mortar and creating extra space to show more of its 250,000-strong art collection.

“A lot of people think this was just a long, complex, expensive building project,” says Thomas Lentz, the director of the Harvard Art Museums. “But we took everything apart—structurally, conceptually and operationally.” Before the renovation, the Fogg Museum, which specialises in European and American art, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which focuses on the art of German-speaking countries, and the Arthur Sackler Museum of Asian art and antiquities operated in relative isolation. “The curators weren’t talking to one another,” Lentz says, even though the Busch-Reisinger was attached to the back of the Fogg and the Sackler was less than a block away.

Under Piano’s pyramidal glass roof—which rises over the Fogg’s neo-Georgian building as well as the new addition—curators have intermingled works from different collections. When visitors walk through the light-filled central courtyard, they will see ancient Greek and Roman sculptures alongside Modern and contemporary works by Auguste Rodin, Louise Bourgeois and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Renaissance paintings and sculpture from the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger collections will also be displayed together for the first time.

Traditional distinctions between departments have also dissolved. The Fogg eliminated its American galleries, opting to show work by US artists alongside European and Native American art. Works on paper, including drawings, prints and photography, will no longer have dedicated galleries either. Although it was a “financial and logistical challenge” to accommodate light-sensitive material in general permanent collection spaces, it paints a more accurate picture of art history, Lentz says. “Early on, the paper curators said: ‘We don’t want to be in the paper ghetto. It’s not how these traditions developed.’”

The desire to break down barriers extends to the museums’ art study centre, which is among the largest in the country. Students, faculty and members of the public can make an appointment—or just drop in, space permitting—to view a work of their choice up close for an extended period. “Based on studies we have done with the graduate school of education, we know that people tend to look deeply and differently in these spaces,” Lentz says. Although some of Harvard’s art collection is stored off-site, a “significant” portion will be accessible at the centre, from Roman bronze figures to still lifes by Paul Gauguin.

In what is fast becoming a trend at US museums, visitors can also watch conservators in action at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, which is under the Renzo Piano-designed glass roof to capitalise on the natural light. The lab will present small exhibitions of works that have been conserved on site, including a fifth-century Greek wine jug and a 12th-century French wood sculpture of the Virgin and Child.

The expansion, announced in 2006 and originally due to finish in 2011, came at a challenging time: Harvard’s museums laid off 30% of staff amid the 2008 financial crisis and plans to build another facility for Modern and contemporary art were delayed indefinitely. Since then, the institution has raised over $250m for its renovation, including $67m in operating endowments, from private donors including Joseph Pulitzer Jr and David Rockefeller. Funders include the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund as well as foundations. (Officials declined to disclose the total budget for the project, but it has been estimated to be around $350m.)

During this transition, the Harvard Art Museums reconfigured nearly every department, hired new curators for academic and public programmes and returned its staff to almost pre-recession levels. “The building is important, but probably the most important thing we’ve done is reorganise the curatorial staff” to encourage “collaboration and cross-fertilisation”, Lentz says. Now that the curators are in their new home, they won’t even have to cross the street to work together.

Light-sensitive Rothkos go on show

A group of rarely seen murals that Mark Rothko created for Harvard University in 1962 have been rescued from obscurity by a novel conservation technique. The five works will be shown alongside 32 works on paper and preparatory studies in Harvard Art Museums’ inaugural exhibition “Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals” (16 November-26 July 2015).

Exposure to too much daylight damaged the paintings, forcing curators to put them into storage just 15 years after Rothko installed them on campus. (In 1988, The New York Times called the situation “a source of controversy and embarrassment” for everyone involved.) The murals have been largely overlooked in the past half-century of Rothko scholarship as a result. But technology developed by Harvard conservators has given the works—one of only three commissioned series Rothko made—a new lease of life.

Scientists created software to compare each faded mural with a photograph of its original. In the exhibition, digital projectors will illuminate each painting with carefully calibrated light to restore the appearance of its original colour without leaving a mark. A sixth mural created for, but ultimately not included in, the commission will be on show for the first time.

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