Tag Archives: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Architecture for art’s sake

3 Jul

After revisiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and loving its collection but its starchitectural addition not so much, I couldn’t have picked a better follow-up than the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which, like the Nelson-Atkins, has a grand neo-classical original building, designed by McKim, White and Mead that has posed a challenge for expansions. You don’t don’t want new wings competing with, or overshadowing this:


Well, not only does the 2006 addition by Michael Graves, which expanded upon both the 1915 building and Kenzo Tange’s minimalist 1974 addition, not compete with the original, it dares to be dull in a way that drew yawns from critics like Blair Kamin when it first opened:

Some neighbors of the museum liken his addition to a mausoleum or a big-box store, a not-so-veiled shot at the wing’s chief sponsor, Minneapolis-based Target Corp. (which also happens to pay the Princeton, N.J., architect to design household products). Indeed, Graves’ mostly windowless expanses of stone turn a forbidding face to the street.

Good point about the apparent conflict of interest with Target.

His main entrance facade is better, its limestone walls, with their niches and thin columns, simultaneously conveying the weighty feel of stone and the lightness of folded paper.

The interior also has its moments, like a barrel-vaulted reception hall that reveals Graves’ talent for enlivening traditional forms with rich materials and colors. But, at root, it’s flawed, the result of a clash in sensibilities between Graves’ postmodernism and the modern spirit of the museum’s curators.

The curators, who furnished the second- and third-floor galleries chiefly housing 20th Century and contemporary art, faithfully continued the crisp aesthetic of the museum’s existing galleries, but at a price. They insisted, for example, on no natural light, a disappointing contrast to Renzo Piano’s planned new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I wonder if Kamin would care to take those words back today. You hardly ask for a better example of what the obsession with natural light has done to museum architecture than the Piano wing at AIC. Kamin concluded:

The result is a generic collection of rooms, handsome when considered individually, but nothing special as a suite. Much the same can be said of this project as a whole: It’s burdened with compromises — classical, but no classic.

Marianne Combs’s Minnesota Public Radio piece, while also noting the Target conflict, gets the real point of the expansion:

To understand the impact of the new wing, consider the museum’s textile collection. Curator Lotus Stack oversees a collection of more than 10,000 textiles, but she’s been able to hang only a few of those pieces at a time in the institute’s hallways. Now she has four entire galleries to herself.

“It feels like I’ve landed in Utopia, I mean what else can you ask for?” laughs Stack. “It is a frustration of probably every curator, some more than others depending on the size of your collection — how much you can share with people, not only to represent the collection, but to give it context to give it greater meaning and relationships. And exhibitions, after all, are about relationships. The whole building is that way, so it’s thrilling for us all.”

The MIA’s expansion has had a ripple effect throughout the building. Every gallery has been reorganized, the art re-hung. As a result, the paintings, sculpture, and prints that adorn the MIA’s now 143 galleries seem to breathe more easily.

Then-director Bill Griswold and trustee Martin Weinstein had this to say to Combs about Graves’s addition:

Griswold says Graves successfully melds the neoclassicism of the MIA’s original building with the modern minimalism of the 1970s addition. But more important, Griswold says, Graves has created a space that allows the MIA to be even more dynamic and aggressive in its programming and its community outreach. Martin Weinstein says while he’s not totally pleased with the new exterior, he’s not too concerned about it.

“You’re not going to stand outside and look at the building too much, says Weinstein. “You’re going to be anxious to run inside and see what they have for you to see — the artwork.”

Weinstein says many museum expansions end up being all about the building. In the case of the MIA, he says, the expansion is all about the art.

In fact, it was only in the 1915 building’s too-grand hall housing 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings that I noticed the architecture intruding on the art. There’s lots of wall space, but it’s mostly vertical, so monumental paintings are hung on top of one another, rising to the sky-high ceiling. I want to get up close and personal with Salvator Rosa’s St. Humphrey (Onuphrius) (c. 1660), not jockey for position to avoid the glare. There’s a reason for the weird distortion in my snapshot of what, as best I can tell, is a fantastic painting, because the only way to photograph it — and to see it — is to look up, way up.


Never mind whatever was hanging above it. Meanwhile, get a load of this Max Beckmann and tell me if think it suffers from a lack of natural light:

Max Beckmann, Blind Man's Buff, 1945. Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Max Beckmann, Blind Man’s Buff, 1945. Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Do we really wish it was hanging next to something like this just to satisfy architects’ natural-light fetish?

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Steven Holl Architects, who will design the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s modern-and-contemporary building, made a lovely building for the Nelson-Atkins, but all the compromises were made by the art that’s inside and that takes forever to find. With Graves’s addition to the MIA, the compromises were made by the architect — and, no doubt, his ego — but the art shines, not just in his wing, but throughout the building. Back to Weinstein:

Weinstein says viewers should feel good inside the museum, even as they’re challenged by the art. The space should enhance their interest, and their ability to remember what they’ve seen. Weinstein says he experienced this himself, with a 17th-century portrait of the virtuous yet ill-fated Lucretia.

Rembrant Harmensz van Rijn, Lucretia, 1666. Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Rembrant Harmensz van Rijn, Lucretia, 1666. Oil on canvas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts

“I sat down in my most recent tour and just looked up at Rembrandt’s painting of this sweet, innocent young woman, and I was so taken with it,” says Weinstein. “I think that’s one of the best Rembrandts anywhere. I don’t think I ever focused on it as much as I did this last time.”

I’ll have more to say about the MIA’s mind-bogglingly good collection — see my Facebook photo album, which I’ll continue to add to, here — and how the museum works to engage viewers with it soon. For now, on to the Walker Art Center.

Empty white spaces, red marble satyrs

2 Jul

If you missed Jerry Saltz’s utterly on-point Facebook rant about museum starchitecture, which was prompted by Steven Holl Architects’ acclaimed — though not by Saltz — 2007 addition to the shockingly wonderful Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (he loves the museum but hates the addition), read it, especially if you care what happens when Holl and crew design the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new modern-and-contemporary art building. And be sure to click on the pictures he took of the interior of the Bloch Building, like this one:

The Bloch Building's endless airport lobby. Photo: Jerry Saltz

The Bloch Building’s interminable airport terminal-style lobby. Photo: Jerry Saltz

There’s a reason Google Image searches on “Steven Holl Nelson Atkins” overwhelmingly turn up renderings of the building’s exterior, which has rightly been praised for the unassuming manner in which it connects to the Nelson-Atkins’s 1933 classical temple-of-art building. The problem, as Saltz notes, is that once you get inside, the “Bloch is all lobbies, ramps, ridiculous angles, emptiness, atria, and almost no art. I walked more than two football fields to reach the art. And this space is three floors tall. …”

As with Renzo Piano’s giant lovely atrium-filled addition to Chicago’s great Art Institute – a space fit only for pharaohs, trustees, architects, and parties, a space all but empty of art for thousands of square feet of three vertical floors – at the handsome Bloch we get white spaces, corridors, construction details, slivers of window here and there, but NO art in sight. It’s more like an airport or a mall. There should be 50 to 60 works here – even if the space isn’t built for art.

And let’s face it, it really isn’t built for art. The most important painting in this gallery, for example, Willem de Kooning’s knockout Woman IV (1953), gets swallowed by the space (it’s on the back wall):


… and for some reason hangs adjacent to a small staircase leading up to a window that looks into the airport/mall you thought you’d finally escaped.

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Granted, the de Kooning is large but not monumental — but that’s just another way of saying that it made more of an impact in the old building. In fact, since the MFAH abandoned the clusterfuckery that used to characterize its Ab-Ex-and-friends gallery, its abstract expressionist presentation is more powerful than the Nelson-Atkins’s, even if some minor-work creep has returned to the MFAH gallery since I wrote this article hailing the welcome changes to the space. (One hopes that’s because a chunk of the MFAH’s American holdings are currently traveling across South Korea.) And the MFAH’s big, dark Rothko makes the Nelson-Atkins’s Rothko look like a non-entity.

All that said, there’s some great stuff in the Bloch Building including this Richard Diebenkorn, this Fairfield Porter masterpiece, this classic Tom Wesselmann, and this:

Kerry James Marshall , American , b. 1955 , b. Birmingham, AL. Memento #5, 2003. Acrylic and glitter on paper adhered to unstretched canvas banner. 9 feet x 13 feet (274.32 x 396.24 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Purchase: acquired through the generosity of the William T. Kemper Foundation---Commerce Bank, Trustee

Kerry James Marshall , American , b. 1955 , b. Birmingham, AL. Memento #5, 2003. Acrylic and glitter on paper adhered to unstretched canvas banner. 9 feet x 13 feet (274.32 x 396.24 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Purchase: acquired through the generosity of the William T. Kemper Foundation—Commerce Bank, Trustee

But for me, the best thing about the Bloch Building — and a key factor distinguishing it from whatever Holl comes up with for the MFAH — is that, in addition to allowing the Nelson-Atkins to show works that would otherwise sit in storage, it frees up at least some room in the old building to show even more art from its incredible collections (I’ve got tons of photos on Facebook). In the Nelson-Atkins’s main building, you run into fantastic art no matter where you turn, including this great red marble sculpture on loan from Rome’s Musei Capitolini through Sept. 29:

Fauno rosso (red satyr), Roman, 117-138 C.E. Red marble. On loan from Musei Capitolini, Rome

Fauno rosso (red satyr), Roman, 117-138 C.E. Red marble. On loan from Musei Capitolini, Rome


Standing in the presence of this red marble satyr, all peeves about the Bloch Building and starchitecture just melt away. That said, here’s hoping Holl’s approach for the MFAH, which hasn’t had the greatest luck with buildings, is to let grand architectural statements play second fiddle to the art instead of the other way around.

Pardon our dust / statement of repurpose

27 Jun

Now that my Art League Houston residency is finished and I’m done exhibiting for the year, I’m ready to get back to blogging regularly about art — in Houston and beyond. I enjoy writing my stories for Arts + Culture magazine, such as this review of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Things in the World exhibition and my Loose Ends column on the reunification of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s European galleries, but they always leave me with more to say than I can fit on the page, and I end up kinda-sorta blogging on Facebook or the comments sections of other writers’ posts — e.g. Harbeer Sandhu’s welcome Houston Is Insipid // Enmired State of Mind screed — so I might as well try to systematize things.

Henri Matisse, 'The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay,' 1917. Cleveland Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, ‘The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay,’ 1917. Cleveland Museum of Art

Ideally I’d go through a site redesign and “rebranding” before reemerging, but as has become my custom every time I do a performative art-meets-art-criticism thingy, I’m about to embark on another road trip, so this blog’s early history as a travelogue will be revived minus the sex-worker part (I’ve been re-retired from the world’s oldest freelance gig since February). I’ll be flying to St. Louis on Saturday to start this one. Tentative itinerary: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Des Moines w/the folks (unfortunately the museum will be closed while I’m there), Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Institute of Arts, possibly museums in Madison, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS OR BUST, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

The trip was inspired by the possibility that Detroit’s creditors might try to force the city to sell off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ by-all-accounts superb collection. This article by Nicholas Wapshott explains why that move would amount to giving up on the city:

… [E]ven if the estimates reflect only half the money that may be raised, it is only going to provide half the money the city needs to become solvent. If there were no other considerations apart from monetary, however, putting a collection of publicly owned art up for auction would be a sure, if undignified, way of raising cash.

Economically, however, it would be a disaster. Art is not like gold, which has few uses except as a store of value. Sell gold and you can buy back gold. Sell rare masterpieces and they can rarely, if ever, be recovered. Fine art has a value way beyond its mere price. To liquidate the DIA’s art would be a short-term fix that would soon redound on those who say they have Detroit’s best interests at heart. …

To sell off the DIA’s collection in a hurriedly arranged fire sale would send a clear signal that Detroit is washed up, a dead end, an urban experiment that did not survive the rigors of the market. Could Detroit endure a long and virulent campaign by art lovers all over America portraying the Motor City as the broken-backed capital of philistinism? Investors would conclude that Detroit is finished and take their money elsewhere. …

As Tom Campbell, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, put it, “Even in the darkest days of New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, and the national economic meltdown of 2008, the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table — never considered an asset that might be cashed-in during a crunch to bridge a negative balance sheet.”

Unfortunately, cries of “save the DIA’s art” are all too easily satirized, as Detroit Free Press business columnist Tom Walsh demonstrates:

Many attendees at the Detroit Regional Chamber gathering were buzzing with anger Wednesday evening over earlier statements by Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr that DIA artworks could possibly become entangled in a Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceeding.

Rich people will stop bequeathing art to the museum, they wailed. Swell traveling exhibits will skip the DIA, which will cease to exist as a respected art house if its treasures are peddled to creditors at a bankruptcy garage sale.

Really? Is it possible, I thought, that otherwise intelligent Michigan people still don’t get it, that a massive financial collapse wreaks drastic change throughout the institution?

Do we not recall that the General Motors had to ditch its Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab brands, fire its CEO and wipe out all of its common stockholders as part of its bankruptcy and bailout?

For years and years, as Detroit kept piling on debt to an unsustainable level of $16 billion, it was popular to blame the mess on mismanagement, intransigent labor unions, poor employee morale and assume those culprits would pay the price when the reckoning finally came.

But, gee, now it has suddenly dawned on the C-suite executives — and their foundations that support the arts — that some of their pet interests are endangered, too.


It takes some nerve to advocate total capitulation to the unregulated market, which has been fueled by the same creditor class that screwed Detroit and is now turning the screws on Detroit, and then to try to paint that viewpoint as the stick-it-to-the rich position. But Walsh is joined by Virginia Postrel, who tries to sound like less of a philistine by advocating that DIA artworks be sold to the Getty, which gets more tourists, as if tourists should take precedence of a museum’s service to the people of its city.

But why wouldn’t Postrel take that view when the interdependence of the travel industry and arts organizations, whose funding is often tied to their ability — perceived or actual — to put heads in hotel beds? Why wouldn’t she advocate selling off the DIA’s holdings when she can point to statements by its former director?

In 1931, the man who built the collection, director William Valentiner, argued for continued city funding by citing how much the works’ value had appreciated. “The Brueghel painting we purchased for $38,000 is valued at more than $150,000,” he said. “If the city were to sell, piece by piece, the objects of art it has purchased, they would realize more than five times the amount paid for them.” Valentiner certainly wasn’t advocating such sales, but his statement demonstrates that they weren’t inconceivable.

As Postrel shows, when art boosters use economic arguments to talk about the importance of art, it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes along and says, “Hey, you know what would really make an economic impact?”

Still, if ever a city could use some cultural tourism right about now, it’s Detroit. And people who were tweeting their support for the DIA from Venice in between shots of the fabulous time they were having at La Biennale shouldn’t wait for someone to organize a biennial to get to the Motor City, visit one of the country’s best museums (and what appears to be an interesting emerging art scene) and spend some fucking money in Detroit and make sure Detroit knows you’re why they’re there.

I expect the ways in which cities use and misuse art to tell the world stories about themselves to be one of this blog’s ongoing motifs. Another will be looking at what museums are and aren’t doing to make their collections more accessible to their cities’ not-so-well-heeled residents. Another will simply involve posting pictures or videos of, and thinking out loud about, the art I see, sometimes relating all of the above to what else is going on in journalism and in the world. I’ll probably do a fair amount of cross-posting on A+C’s website, especially as we work on retooling things for the fall. Follow me on Twitter (@dbhypend) to keep up with it all. In the meantime, pardon our dust while I gradually repurpose this blog, taking away some pages and putting up new ones and fiddling with the appearance.