Beyond dollars and square feet

How will museum expansion in Massachusetts affect the way we see — and talk about — art?
By GREG COOK  |  April 5, 2006

When the Institute of Contemporary Art revealed specifics of the first 11 acquisitions for its permanent collection a month ago, I watched with particular interest. Greater Boston’s art institutions are in the midst of a building boom, and there’s been much talk of famous architects and raising money and how many bodies need to be crammed in for the institutions to break even. All very important stuff, but I keep wondering: what does all this new art infrastructure mean for the kind and amount of art we will see? Will our local cultural experience expand in direct proportion to all the shiny new square feet of exhibition space?

It’s a difficult question. The centerpiece of the Museum of Fine Arts’ expansion is a new four-story wing for its collection of art from the Americas, and there will be new galleries for temporary exhibitions and recent art from the permanent collection. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is pondering a new building to create additional exhibition space. Harvard’s Fogg and Busch-Reisinger Museums, the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, and Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum are planning or in the midst of renovations and/or expansions.

And this September, the Institute of Contemporary Art moves from Boylston Street into a flashy new glass box rising on Northern Avenue along the South Boston waterfront. It triples the museum’s size (from 20,000 square feet to 65,000 square feet) and exhibition space (6000 square feet to around 18,000 square feet) as well as adding administrative space and amenities. Inasmuch as the ICA was founded in 1936 to focus on the art of the now, it has avoided collecting art. (Lack of space would have made that difficult in any case.) But with the move, ICA leaders have decided to start. The announcement of the initial acquisitions is the first sign of where all this art building is leading us.

NEW MISSION: Renovations at the Danforth - and exhibitions of paintings like Jack Levine's The Reluctant Ploughshare - could allow it to become the home of Boston Expressionism.To be a player — even a modest one — in the museum game generally requires you to organize shows with borrowed works and host traveling exhibits organized elsewhere. Katherine French took over as director of the Danforth Museum in Framingham at the start of 2005; soon after, she proposed modest changes to the former public high school that houses the 31-year-old institution. By November, when the Danforth opened its Joan Snyder painting retrospective, it had added a room devoted to children’s-book illustration, raised the ceilings a few feet, added some 45 feet of walls, and installed climate controls in the two galleries that housed the Snyder show.

Much contemporary art is big, and the Danforth’s changes helped it accommodate things like Snyder’s 12-by-6-foot canvases. But perhaps more important was the addition of climate controls to protect delicate pieces — like 30-year-old Snyder paintings. Speaking of the Hyman Bloom show the museum has scheduled for next year, French adds, “Most of the work belongs to collectors, and they would not have lent the work if it could not have been taken care of.”

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Museums, Museum of Fine Arts, Brandeis University,  More more >
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