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Inside the National Gallery
Comments () | Published July 1, 2008
When the East Building was designed and built, the National Gallery had little in the way of a modern-art collection, so the building was designed with temporary exhibits in mind.

Gallery needs more space.

Gallery director Earl “Rusty” Powell III knows this. “We need more than exhibition space,” he says. “We will need a comprehensive approach to our space plan that involves all of the above. Right now I would take nothing off the table of considerations.”

In the coming months, the NGA will undertake efforts to address its major issues: the inconsistent quality of the 20th- and 21st-century collections, the awkward way they’re installed, and the NGA’s need for more space.

Finished in 1978, the East Building is one of the world’s most famous museum buildings. Places as disparate as the new Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Indianapolis Museum of Art have embraced the East Building’s primary conceit: the soaring central atrium, a space more about space than about art.

“I’ve always been frankly astonished by the building in a positive way,” says Richard Gluckman, an architect who has worked on more than a dozen art-museum projects. “I think the detail in design and construction is of the highest level. As a piece of modern architecture, it’s one of the most important and distinguished things on the Mall. It’s a monumental piece of sculpture.”

The East Building’s weaknesses are legendary: The atrium dominates, making the building feel like an atrium with a couple of art-display spaces attached. The galleries are awkward and incoherently spread through the building. They’re too big or too small. There are too few of them. Every gallery but one is cut off from natural light.

“The display of modern or contemporary art doesn’t live up to the architecture even though the architecture is now 30 years old,” says Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Before moving to California, Brand was director of the Mellon-family–supported Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and became familiar with the NGA. “It’s a funny thing: Because the [East Building] galleries are so totally devoid of light, the memories I have are of the public spaces, the atrium. That’s what you notice when you’re there.”

These are issues that fall to Harry Cooper, the NGA’s head of modern and contemporary art. He’s been on the job less than a year. Except for a couple of galleries of late-19th- and early-20th-century French paintings located to the left of the East Building’s street entrance, the collection galleries in the East Building are Cooper’s bailiwick. I ask him what he thinks of his galleries.

“Gulp,” he says, looking over at an NGA public-relations person sitting in on the interview before going ahead. “They are—some of them are beautiful. I love going up to the upper level. But I think that the [downstairs] concourse level needs to be rethought, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that. Right now when I go down there, it has felt sort of like a big convention center of art from various periods without much structure, without much narrative, with some awkward, long spaces and some temporary walls. Those things don’t really add up right now, partly because of the space. It’s a collection of stuff, and the question is how to turn it into a compelling experience that is not a mall for postwar art. There are some changes I’m going to make. That’s key territory for me.”

Powell agrees, adding that Cooper has some time to think through the space issues and about how the NGA can more effectively exhibit the art of the last 110 years.

“Personally, I’d love to see more natural light in the galleries,” Powell says. “The [east] building was designed with no idea of a collection, and the collection has grown into it. It’s a difficult building, and I think it’s worked very well. Down the line it will stay [a building for] modern art, but it will change.”

The nonoffice spaces of the East Building consist of three diamond-shaped towers of galleries clustered around the atrium as well as the downstairs gallery for postwar art from the permanent collection. Only one tower, where the Matisse cutouts are, is open to the public. The other two are closed off for storage. Powell says the NGA could convert those top floors into gallery space, creating up to 40,000 square feet of space.

Cooper has lots of ideas: He thinks about taking the Matisse cutouts out of one tower, expanding the skylight there, and letting in both light and more contemporary work. Most of the NGA’s permanent collection of modern art is in the East Building, but enough of it is in the West to frustrate Cooper: He thinks the buildings force a false break upon closely related work.

He wants to address the NGA’s collection weaknesses in cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, constructivism, European expressionism, Arte Povera, and American postwar art from outside New York. He’d like to find a place where the curators can invite living artists to come do something—perhaps curate collection installations or other kinds of presentations. And he wants to get a little more energy from the present into the museum.

“They don’t have to be the youngest artists in the world,” Cooper says. “I mean, there are some 60-year-old artists who would really freshen up the place.”

There’s one way the NGA is expanding space for Cooper, but it’s not in Washington. Earlier this year, the National Gallery and one of its longtime donors, Robert Meyerhoff, announced an arrangement by which the Meyerhoff estate in Phoenix, Maryland, will become a kind of NGA study-and-exhibit center. It’s not clear how that will work—the Meyerhoff farm is 60 miles from DC, and visitation in its galleries will be capped at 125 people a day. The farm seems likely to become a destination for researchers and a few postwar-art lovers.

So the challenge may be in doing everything Cooper would like to do within the East Building. Powell says the NGA’s administrative offices, located in the easternmost tower of the East Building, facing the Capitol, won’t leave. That means if Cooper and the NGA want more space for art, the 40,000 square feet potentially available in the towers might have to be enough. But the NGA would like much more space than that.

Since 1978, when the East Building opened, every major American museum has grown. The Art Institute of Chicago has added or is building 400,000 square feet. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles split itself in two, remodeling and expanding a 490,000-square-foot center for ancient art in Malibu and building a 945,000-square-foot complex in Brentwood. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has added or is in the process of building 325,000 square feet for its museum and school. Since 1970, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has roughly doubled in size, from 1 million to 2 million square feet.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles