Exhibitions   News   11 December 2012

Yale University Art Gallery Renovation

The architectural trinity that is Yale University Art Gallery: Louis Kahn’s 1953 gridded modernist box, at far left; center, the gothic revivalism of Egerton Swartout’s 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery; at right, Peter Bonnett Wight’s 1866 Street Hall, which was the Art Gallery’s original home.

Harmonizing three buildings built between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s is no mean feat, especially when each displays a dramatically different architectural sensibility but is intended to harmonize a voluminous collection of more than 200,000 objects spanning centuries and encompassing numerous cultures.  Yale University Art Gallery Director Jock Reynolds, working with Ennead Architects Management Principal Duncan Hazard and Design Principal Richard Olcott, has succeeded in pulling off this one-of-a-kind trifecta.

Budgeted at $135 million, the project effectively increases the museum’s territory from 1 1/2 buildings to three.  The 1953 Louis Kahn building has been renovated, its interior spaces redefined; Egerton Swartout’s 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery building, once divided between the Art Gallery and Art History Department, is now completely given over to the display of art.  Finally, Peter Bonnett Wight’s 1866 Street Hall has been completely revamped, restoring Yale University Art Gallery’s original home to a functioning museum. 

The new galleries afford the Art Gallery plenty of room to show off more than 1100 recent acquisitions, including an entire gallery given over to highlights of the Indo-Pacific Art collection of Thomas Jaffe (a promised gift of over 600 sculptures, ceremonial objects, and fabrics) and another gallery featuring aspects of the museum’s similarly sized collection of African Art.  Nearly every other existing gallery has seen changes or refinements, a process overseen by chief curator Laurence Kanter.  These range from completely rethinking decorative schemes in the European painting galleries, to inserting a recent donation, Martin Johnson Heade’s extraordinary Two Hummingbirds with Their Young, to punctuate the new American painting and sculpture galleries.  The Modern and Contemporary Galleries boast a number of gifts and purchases that reflect director Reynolds first-hand knowledge of west coast artists (Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, William Wiley, Robert Hudson) and Yale University’s deep bench of prominent alumni artists (Dawoud Bey, Chuck Close, Richard Serra, and Jessica Stockholder, to name but a few).

The renovation has added 29,000 square feet of exhibition space; roughly 4,000 square feet comprise the temporary exhibition galleries added onto the Old Yale Art Gallery building.  The strongly lateral, open plan main gallery takes advantage of its rooftop location, with filtered natural light augmenting incandescent spots and floods. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition, “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” is a standout in its own right.  Organized by curator of modern and contemporary art Jennifer Gross, and coming home to Yale after a national tour, the exhibition includes works by more than 100 artists and is a must for anyone interested in the connections between American and European modernism fomented by Société founders Katherine S. Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray.

Complaints?  I have a few minor grumbles.  The Kahn and Old Yale building designs are inward-looking, affording few opportunities for art to be seen in natural light, although the restoration of glass-wall accessibility to one large gallery in the Kahn building and the luminosity of the skylit Street Hall and Old Yale exhibition galleries partially mitigates this.  And, as might be expected with any unification of divergent architectural styles, deciphering the layout is no easy task.  While it can be disorienting to plot your location, visitors can chart their visits around the large elevators that mark each building.  In any case, trying to take in this museum’s abundance in one visit is a feat that even the fastest speed walker would find difficult.  Return visits are the order of the day, and easy on the pocketbook, since the Yale University Art Gallery does not charge an admission fee.

—Christopher French

The new American 19th century gallery in Street Hall boasts an abundance of filtered natural light to animate its period details. © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012.

One of the American decorative arts galleries, seen from the new elevator that now forms the core of Street Hall.  The cast iron support column was revealed during restoration and retained as the gallery’s central element. © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012

Southern exterior elevation (L-R: Kahn Building, Old Yale Art Gallery Building, Street Hall).  © Ennead Architects

Indo-Pacific Galleries. © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012

Sol Lewitt wall drawing and Gothic columns flank the restored Yellin Gates. © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012

“Société Anonyme” in the the new special exhibition galleries. © Elizabeth Felicella, 2012

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