The opening of the $345 million Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts this week represents but the latest — and the biggest — crest in a wave of new-museum construction in Boston that began unofficially with the opening of the new Institute of Contemporary Art building on Fan Pier in December 2007. Down the street from the MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is in the midst of its own $114 million construction of a new wing by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano. (See photos from the June "Topping Ceremony" here.) Keeping a lower profile — except to its immediate mid-Cambridge neighbors — is the renovation (some might say reconstruction) of the Fogg Art Museum, also designed by Piano (cost as yet undisclosed).
But first things first. The Gardner began site preparation October 9. By late 2011, it expects to complete its new 70,000-square-foot wing, which would then open to the public in early 2012. (The total area of the original 1903 building is 60,000 square feet.)
As of a few weeks ago, the major features of the Gardner were coming clearly into view. The Gardner has always been limited by the stipulation in Mrs. Gardner's will that, in essence, each object in the museum must remain where she left it. Special exhibitions were always limited to a 500-square-foot gallery. The special-exhibition gallery in the new wing will be a three-story, 1500-foot room with full-length north-facing windows and adjustable ceiling, plus a small, 500-foot ante-room. The old entrance will be closed; the new one, on Evans Way, will lead into a more spacious lobby. The new wing will also include a "Living Room" orientation area, a restaurant, a gift shop, new greenhouses, and two artist residences on the second floor with atelier-like windows.
But the jewel of the new wing will be its 296-seat concert hall. Last year, when Piano spoke at the museum, it seemed that this was his main incentive for taking the job. Its capacity will be about the same as that of the Tapestry Room, the site of concerts in the historic building. But that long hall, though attractive and intimate, was never ideal for concerts — especially if you were seated more than 20 rows back. The new concert hall will have its performers in the center, surrounded by the audience on all four sides, with two rows of seats on the first floor topped by three single-row balconies.
The situation at what are now being called "the Harvard University Art Museums" is more complicated. In February 2006, Harvard announced a "comprehensive academic plan to transform facilities for teaching, research, and presentation of its renowned collections." Most immediately, that meant a complete renovation of the Fogg Art Museum building at 32 Quincy Street, which was constructed in 1927. What casual observers probably didn't realize was that this also meant the demolition of Otto Werner Hall, the adjoining structure that since 1991 had housed the collection of the former Busch-Reisinger Museum on Kirkland Street.
The Fogg has officially been closed since June 2008, during which time its various collections have been represented in the Sackler Museum down the block on Broadway.