By David A. Brensilver
The Yale University Art Gallery’s official public reopening next month will bring to fruition a renovation and expansion project nearly two decades in the making. Planning for the $135 million project, which has spread the gallery’s collection across three facilities – the “Old Art Gallery,” Street Hall, and the celebrated Louis Kahn building – began in 1994, when Ennead Architects (previously Polshek Partnership) was hired by Yale University to conduct an assessment of the latter.
“The building was in trouble,” Duncan Hazard, an Ennead principal, said.
When Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, joined the university’s administration in 1998, a plan to expand the university’s arts facilities was under way, having been initiated by Yale University President Richard Levin.
The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection, Reynolds said, “was a very distinguished” one that required more space. By expanding across the space provided in the three above-mentioned buildings, Reynolds said, “we’ve corrected 250 years of deferred maintenance.”
The challenge in doing so was to keep the gallery open during its renovation and expansion, which meant organizing, documenting, and relocating the collection’s individual works.
A “huge amount of labor and money was invested in doing that,” Reynolds said.
“Levin’s endeavor to rejuvenate all of the arts programs at Yale,” Ennead principal Richard Olcott said, required “a giant game of musical chairs” and an understanding that the “Old Art Gallery,” Street Hall, and the Kahn building “are landmarks in their own right.”
“The buildings themselves,” Reynolds said, “have been beautifully, lovingly restored.”
Particularly satisfying to Reynolds are the sightlines that were opened up during the renovation process. One doesn’t typically think about looking into and out of a museum, he pointed out.
And because the gallery is spread across three very different buildings, Reynolds said, “you don’t get the kind of architectural fatigue you can” at other museums.
To achieve that, Hazard said, “The whole thing had to work together.”
New architectural elements, Olcott said, were thought of as “careful surgical” enhancements to those historical landmarks.
“We really – literally – built a new museum inside the old museum,” Olcott said.
Since planning specific to the Yale University Art Gallery’s renovation and expansion began in 2007, Reynolds was committed to opening portions of the updated gallery space as soon as possible.
“Providing access to the collections” was always central to the renovations plans, Pamela Franks, the gallery’s deputy director for collections and education, said.
“We’ve really made a point of staying open” throughout the renovation process, Franks said.
The yield of all that planning offers a “sweeping display of the overall collection for the first time,” Franks said. “There will be so much more on view than has been on view.”
And that includes future acquisitions.
“Collecting art is an enormous part of what we do,” Franks explained. “Any collection that is not growing is not as vital as it could be.”
With that and other factors in mind, Reynolds pointed out that the $135 million renovation project “was 100 percent gift-funded.”
In addition to raising money for design and construction work, Reynolds said, “We grew the endowment,” explaining that those involved in the project didn’t want to have new buildings without being able to properly run them – which takes into consideration staff positions, art acquisitions, publications, and education programs, to name just a few administrative areas.
“You’re going to see us much more engaged with New Haven as time goes on,” Reynolds said.