May 1, 2007

C.U. Unveils New Look For Johnson Museum

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This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue.

University officials unveiled plans yesterday for a new addition to the north side of The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art scheduled to open in 2010.
The construction of the addition, which was part of the original plan for the Museum, will begin in the spring of 2008, according to the press release. I.M. Pei and & Partners — now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners — initially planned to have an addition that was mostly underground, extending into the gorge on the north side of the Museum, with a large picture window overlooking the gorge. However, this is no longer possible.
“We couldn’t do it years ago because of financial reasons, and we can’t do it now for environmental reasons. Even I would be against it,” said Franklin Robinson, the director of the Museum. [img_assist|nid=23295|title=Laying the foundation.|desc=(Courtesy of Cornell University.) A model of the proposed expansion to the Johnson Museum unveiled yesterday by the University.|link=node|align=left|width=640|height=557]
Instead, according to Robinson, a 16,000 square foot addition will be built, with 14,000 feet of that structure underground. The addition will allow the Museum to showcase its rapidly expanding collection.
“When we opened, the Museum had 9,000 works of art. We’ve got over 32,000 works now. We have a third more visitors. In 1990 we had 67,000 visitors. We now have over 82,000 visitors,” Robinson said. “We have more programs, more staff, and we just plain need more space … This allows us to present more programs and share more works of art from the permanent collection … about 400 more than we are showing now.”
The Museum has been working toward creating this addition since its opening, but University approval only came within the last few years. The University wanted proof that the Museum needed the extra space, and the Museum rose to the challenge.
“The University said ‘we don’t know that you need the extra space,’ so we had an external review panel come in with three museum directors, and they studied all our operations. They concluded that we needed the space,” said Peter Gould, assistant director for administration and finance of the Museum.
The University acknowledged this need, but insisted that the Johnson raise its own money for the construction. According to Robinson, the addition was funded largely by three bequests. Clara Seley and Paul Ehrenfest each donated half a million dollars to the project, and a third anonymous bequest was larger, but its current value is unknown.
The project is estimated to cost $17 million, and $15 million has already been raised. Now that the University has approved the plan and most of the money is in, the project is in full swing.
“The first [University] approval to go through with this came two-and-a-half years ago, and once that happens, you’re sort of moving right along. You’re really working hard at getting that University approval,” Gould said.
Since that approval, the project has been going smoothly, according to Gould. All that remains of the initial plans is the final board approval.
‘We’ve been working with the city all along, just to make sure that we haven’t drawn anything that they’re going to object to. We haven’t presented it to the board officially yet, but we’re not expecting any surprises,” Gould said.
According to Gould, the schematic design of the addition was submitted last week. The expansion will particularly affect the Museum’s large Asian gallery, which is one of its most vital collections.
“When a lot of people think of Asian art, they think of it as a monolithic culture, and it’s not,” Gould said.
According to Gould, the addition will free up 50 percent of the space in the current Asian gallery, which will aid in visually separating the various aspects of Asian art.
Associate Director and Ames Curator of Education of the Museum Cathy Klimaszewski is particularly excited for the educational opportunities the addition will provide.
“There will be a new studio workshop area, and this will allow us to have art supplies so we can work with kids, students, adults and families in the workshop,” Klimaszewski said.
Aside from added offices and galleries, the addition will also include a new lecture hall that will facilitate classes and presentations, with an annexed visitor space.
“This will improve the visitor experience considerably. You can have a lecture and move into the gathering space and have a place to sit,” Klimaszewski said.
An innovative feature of the addition is an open storage section. Currently featured in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the open storage allows the Museum to showcase a much larger selection of its permanent collection.
“Instead of just shutting all the artwork behind closed doors, they have some of it out in glass cases so that people can see more of the collection than they could normally see,” Klimaszewski said.
According to Klimaszewski, there will be a hand-held computer tour that will help visitors navigate the open storage artwork. This technology is already implemented in the Asia collection currently housed in the Museum.
Robinson and Klimaszewski have high hopes for the addition, and its potential to draw a larger visitor base and to provide more to those visitors.
“What is going to be great is that this changes the museum and its service — its ability to reach out to the rest of the community, to the Cornell students and the wider community — it changes our ability to present works of art to the public as they come in,” Robinson said.
“I think this will just generally be a great place for people to be,” Klimaszewski said.