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John Harvard's Journal

Art Museums Launch Renaissance

March-April 2006

The rebirthing of the Harvard University Art Museums is announced. After months of strategic planning, and a wide-ranging search for real estate, the staff of the museums is bracing for work that will solve alarming infrastructure problems, daringly change the way curators provide access to their collections, take years, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“People’s shorthand way of describing our infrastructure problem is to say, ‘They don’t have climate control at the Fogg.’ Believe me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Thomas W. Lentz, Cabot director of the museums (HUAM). “We have physical problems that are so severe that they’re beginning to negatively impact virtually everything we do as a museum.” He says the job can’t wait.

 The Fogg Art Museum building at 32 Quincy Street, in the corridor of art-related buildings at the edge of Harvard Yard, opened in 1927 and has wiring to prove it. President Lawrence H. Summers observes that the first report calling for the Fogg’s renovation was written when he was two years old. The conjoined Busch-Reisinger Museum, built onto the back of the Fogg in 1991, has interior walls that, for complex technical reasons, are buckling and need to be taken apart.

The Fogg/Busch building will close to the public in or near the summer of 2008, says Lentz. Then, in a 12- to 15-month process, all of the collections there will be taken away. (The Fogg features Western art from the Middle Ages to the present. The Busch-Reisinger emphasizes art from German-speaking countries. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum across the street on Broadway is home to ancient, Asian, Indian, and Islamic art. In all, the collections include 250,000 objects, making the museum the sixth largest in the country.)

The unrenovated Fogg's courtyard
Martha Stewart/ Harvard University Art Museums

All of the staff of the Fogg, the Busch, and the Straus Center for Conservation at the top of the Fogg/Busch building will clear out, too. The Fine Arts Library will go: books, slides, and people. Run by the Harvard College Library, it is located, mostly underground, in HUAM’s Quincy Street building.

Once emptied, the Quincy Street building will be renewed. The project architect is Renzo Piano of Genoa, Italy: designer of the Menil Collection in Houston, the Paul Klee Center in Bern, Switzerland, the expansion of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the unfolding renovation of the Morgan Library in New York, and the current expansions of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and of the Art Institute of Chicago. His design will not only remedy the building’s infrastructure problems, but will add modestly to its volume, mostly by digging down. The Renaissance-reminiscent courtyard of the Fogg will stay. The Quincy Street façade will likely remain intact. Piano has not yet begun his work, city review boards have not considered it, and so any speculation about the building’s final looks would be just that.

While the building is under reconstruction, the museums will maintain a public presence with an exhibition—perhaps of their greatest hits—probably in the Sackler galleries. That state of affairs will prevail until the overhaul of 32 Quincy Street is complete, which Lentz hopes to see in 2011 or 2012. Everything else will go into storage. Paintings, ceramics, clocks, silver vessels, bronzes, furniture, et cetera, will move in part to a commercial art-storage facility now being built in neighboring Somerville and in part to an interim museum site, along with most of HUAM’s staff of 250. This facility will also function temporarily as a public museum for modern and contemporary art.

The location of the interim site had not been published as this issue went to press. Lentz has considered at least 25 potential sites, in Boston, Cambridge, and Allston. Some existing Allston edifice will get the nod. A strong possibility, Lentz said in an interview, is a 75,000-square-foot building on Soldiers Field Road, on the Allston-Brighton line, formerly bank offices and now owned by Harvard. The building has things to recommend it for the museums’ purposes, but is far removed from the heart of the proposed new Allston campus, a disadvantage.

A permanent second site presumably will be part of the cultural complex in the new campus. A committee chaired by associate provost for the arts and humanities Sean Buffington is now discussing creating a museum facility in Allston to provide space for several University collections. Members include Lentz, John Megan, director of the Office for the Arts, Robert Orchard, director of the Loeb Drama Center, Watts professor of music Kay Shelemay, and William Fash, Bowditch professor of Central American and Mexican archaeology and ethnology and Howells director of the Peabody Museum.

The permanent second site will become Harvard’s museum of modern and contemporary art. (Its spaciousness will enhance Harvard’s ability to add such art, much of which is huge, to its collection; adequate exhibition space is a sine qua non for donors.) The date of the new museum’s completion is highly conjectural: perhaps a decade or more hence.

This site will also contain offices for HUAM’s noncuratorial staff, the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art, a multi-purpose study center, a satellite of the Straus conservation center, and the museums’ major loading facility.

Lentz’s predecessor as director, James Cuno, strove to hatch a two-building satellite museum in the Riverside area of Cambridge along Memorial Drive (see “Riverside Rezoned,” January-February 2004, page 63). One of its parts would have housed modern and contemporary art, the other the collections in the Sackler. That museum’s architect was Renzo Piano. The neighbors shot down the low, wood-and-glass complex he proposed, and Harvard eventually struck a multi-part agreement allowing it to build 250 beds of housing for affiliates on the site instead.

When Cuno’s plans were torpedoed, Piano’s attention was turned to the rehabilitation of the Quincy Street building. When Lentz became director in November 2003 (see “Harvard Portrait,” July-August 2005, page 56), he found that Piano was all the way to the schematic-design phase in the Quincy Street project.

Lentz called a halt. The museums had grown in ad hoc ways over the years. Now the staff needed to pause for strategic planning and a space-needs assessment. They spent the next year grinding through the process with a consultant, involving members of the art-history faculty, students, colleagues at the Peabody Museum, and community representatives.

All this cerebration led beyond fixing the Fogg’s infrastructure to devising “new structures and new models that will allow us to execute our mission much more effectively and have a farther reach than we’ve had in the past, both inside and outside the University,” Lentz says. “We have a teaching and research mission, attached to a very powerful collection. Together we’re part of a university of world importance. Our trick must be to make this great resource more accessible to more students, more faculty, more members of the community.”

Eventually, collections, curators and their support staffs, the conservation staff, and probably much of the Fine Arts Library will return to the revivified Quincy Street site. Even though HUAM will have a museum of modern and contemporary art in Allston, “there is no question,” says Harry Cooper, curator of modern art, “but that we will maintain highlights of post-1900 painting and sculpture on display in the new Quincy Street building.”

The museums will present themselves in a radically new way, built around study centers where people can have close, perhaps transformative, encounters with art. Lentz, Ph.D. ’85, had one himself as a graduate student, when he was first allowed actually to handle the collection of exquisite Persian paintings. “I know from my years at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery,” he says, “that the only way you can really get to understand jade is to hold it and feel it, and you can’t do that through an exhibition case. We can teach things with objects. We can make visual and tactile what others at Harvard can only talk about.”

There will be a study center for each of the three museums, with exhibition galleries and curatorial offices around it. “We are giving almost equal weight to study centers and galleries,” says Lentz. “We asked ourselves, ‘What is it we can do that other people can’t? What are we really good at?’ and time and time again we came back to the Mongan Center and the Busch-Reisinger study center as models.”

The Fogg’s Mongan Center is a collaborative joining of three curatorial departments—prints, drawings, and photography—which share a support staff and a fairly large room in which their treasures may be spread upon tables, looked at, and even handled by visitors, under supervision. Any member of the public without an obvious screw loose may go there, ask to see the Dürer drawings, and have them fetched for viewing. Students arrive in droves with their teachers. “The Mongan Center model is the key to our future,” says Lentz.

Lentz is excited about the collaboration the restructuring should foster. “For example,” he says, “there are huge visual, intellectual, and programmatic links between the Sackler departments of ancient, Asian, and Islamic and later Indian art, but these departments don’t interact with one another as they should. They’re essentially in silos. I need them in a more collaborative structure. The more we can work across fields and disciplines, the more we’ll see the kinds of ideas that we should be seeing from a museum that has a huge amount of intellectual and research muscle.”

Stephan Wolohojian, a curator in the department of European paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts, says that all of the curators are “interested in exploring the idea of putting these study centers at the core of the museums. It’s one of our biggest challenges, since there is no model, either in a major civic museum or at another university.”

“For the curators of works on paper, a study-center model is familiar,” says William Robinson, Abrams curator of drawings and head of curatorial affairs, a sort of buffer between the director and the curators. “Curators with three-dimensional objects will have to make some practical and mental readjustments.” Some are cautious. Asian art objects have been shown to visitors infrequently and with the utmost care, and, says Robinson, “there are good reasons for that. Unrolling scrolls and moving large pieces of priceless ceramic—it’s specialized work, and perhaps it’s also important that anyone presenting these objects know Asian languages. Under the new model, a visitor will see a vase in an exhibition gallery and ring the study-center bell to ask, ‘Do you have any more of those?’ Other examples will be brought into the study center.” This will make valuable use of the permanent collection. And the museum will need a new staff of professional art handlers.

“Everyone endorses the idea of greater access to the collections,” says Robinson. “The study-center model is daring and presents many new avenues to learning. There’s nothing like leafing through a sketchbook, or turning over a drawing to see what’s on the back—things one can’t do in a gallery.”

“We assume,” says Lentz, “that you can learn certain things in the classroom, and certain things in the exhibition gallery, but in these study centers a different type of learning takes place. It’s more interactive, more dynamic, more intimate, less passive.” Of Harvard’s museums, he says, “We have the opportunity to build something quite differ­ent in a museum. I wouldn’t suggest that this is a model that would make sense for any other museum, but given our collections, our history, our mission, and the context in which we work, we think it makes huge sense for us.”