The art of renovation

Ambition is on display as museums in the area expand, add facilities

The new Art of the Americas Wing will open in November at the Museum of Fine Arts. The new Art of the Americas Wing will open in November at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Jodi Hilton for The New York Times)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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Must museums of art, like sharks, keep moving to survive?

If keeping on the move means building new wings and renovating old ones, the case would be easy to make in and around Boston right now.

In November, the Museum of Fine Arts is due to open its new Art of the Americas Wing, after several years of museum-wide upheaval and a successful $504 million fund-raising campaign. The Addison Gallery of American Art, in Andover, meanwhile, reopened in early September after closing for two years to complete its own expansion and renovation.

In Cambridge, by contrast, the museum formerly known as the Fogg stands gutted and agape as the Harvard Art Museums, with the help of Italian architectural maestro Renzo Piano, completely revamp their famous building on Quincy Street.

Piano’s Genoa-based firm has been put to work on the Fenway, too, as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum proceeds with its new extension, slated to be finished in the fall of 2012. The Gardner’s new building, which will be connected to the old one via a shaded glass walkway or “umbilical cord,’’ is designed, says the Gardner’s director, Anne Hawley, to take pressure off the original. Piano’s partly transparent design will house a performance hall, temporary exhibition space, shop, restaurant, and visitor services, along with a greenhouse, artist-in-residence quarters, and classrooms in an adjoining, pavilion-like structure.

The project, which prompted a $180 million capital campaign, is by now well advanced, even though $44 million still remains to be raised. The structure recently reached its maximum height, and builders have gotten on with soundproofing the 296-foot performance hall.

Through all this, the existing museum has remained open.

Over at Harvard, the Fogg is a forlorn version of its stately former self. Nonetheless, ever since the Quincy Street building closed in 2008, those wishing to see a smartly selected (but alas, unchanging) display of greatest hits from Harvard’s deep and rich collection have been able to wander through the Arthur M. Sackler Museum just down the road at 485 Broadway.

The renovation — which all agree was badly overdue — won’t be finished until 2013. If this happens on schedule, it may feel like a miracle to Harvard Art Museums director Thomas Lentz, who has had to contend with a rash-inducing concatenation of financial challenges, turf wars, and wrangles over the design — not to mention the university’s byzantine bureaucracy — every step of the way.

It’s a happier story at the Addison, where both the extension to Charles Platt’s gracious 1931 design and the budget were more modest. This enabled the museum to upgrade its back-of-house functions, such as its onsite storage, learning center, and library, without trying to change the scale and character of the galleries themselves.

It’s exciting and intriguing that this great collection of American art opens just two months before the MFA opens its massive new Art of the Americas Wing, in an extension designed by the London firm Foster + Partners.

The MFA’s collection is bigger, its pockets are deeper. But will size come at the expense of intimacy and engagement?

It’s too early to say. But the ambition behind the MFA’s new wing is certainly impressive, and the decision to present not just “American art’’ but the “Art of the Americas’’ — more than 5,000 objects ranging from pre-Columbian gold and Native American baskets to colonial painting and modernist abstraction — is bold.

Have all of these improvements and additions, coming as they have hot on the heels of major building projects at Institute of Contemporary Art, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, really been necessary?

In each of these instances, a powerful case has been made by those championing the cause of change. Museums do have to move with the times. They must also resist falling victim to their own success: They have to find ways to deal with expanding collections, overcrowding, wear-and-tear, and shifting expectations in areas like education and programming.

But there are also cruder economic realities to acknowledge. For many US museums, which are largely devoid of government funding, the best way to raise money is to show potential donors that ambitious new plans are afoot. Benefactors, after all, want change, pizzazz, and the possibility of etching their names above the threshold to some shiny new gallery. They tend not to want to be involved with fundamentally conservative institutions.

New building projects are the best way of signaling change and ambition.

They’re also the easiest way for ambitious directors to leave a tangible legacy.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

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