More is more

After ten years of renovations, the Yale University Art Gallery is bigger and better. 

Mark Alden Branch '86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine

In a time of tightened belts and fiscal cliffs, the most striking thing about the new and improved Yale University Art Gallery is its sense of abundance. It’s more art than you’ve ever seen on display at Yale, more than 4,000 works stretched across three adjoining buildings that themselves cover a century of American architectural history. The gallery’s collections have always been broad, with works spanning from ancient Greece to contemporary New York, but now they are deep, too, with 50 percent more exhibition space than before the renovation.

In December, the gallery completed a ten-year, $135 million renovation and expansion with the unveiling of the renovated Old Art Gallery building (built in 1928) and the reclaimed Street Hall (1866), which was once the home of the gallery and the School of Art but which had been occupied by the history of art department for several decades. While the overhaul of Louis Kahn’s 1953 addition to the gallery in 2006 was a revelation, with the building’s open plan and walls of glass restored to their original splendor, these newest renovations are a more dramatic change to the gallery’s character, allowing a remarkable new diversity of spaces for the display of the varied collection. So large contemporary paintings are hung in high-ceilinged, white-walled galleries, while American paintings and decorative arts of the nineteenth century are seen in the genteel, wainscoted galleries of Street Hall.

It wasn’t the easiest way to expand. Many museums looking for extra space might have added a new building instead of dealing with the myriad safety, structural, and accessibility issues involved in bringing the three buildings up to date. None of the buildings had ever had a major renovation, says director Jock Reynolds, so “we were looking at a total of 280 years of deferred maintenance.” 

But Reynolds says the buildings were artworks themselves that the gallery wanted to preserve. “The buildings did present a lot of challenges, but we’d have been crazy not to want to work with them.”

Besides restoring the buildings to something like their original condition—something that, in the case of Street Hall, no living person had ever seen before—the project’s architects (Ennead Architects of New York) found new exhibit space by filling in a previously empty tower in the Old Art Gallery and putting a new gallery and outdoor sculpture terrace on the roof. Reynolds calls the resulting experience “a three-course meal with a nightcap at the top.”

What’s even more impressive about the ambitious project is that it continued with barely a hiccup after the economy collapsed and Yale’s endowment took a $6 billion hit in 2008. At that point, all unfunded building projects had to be completed strictly through gift funding. “To have kept the project going during a recession, when other projects were in a holding pattern, says something about the university, but it says more about Jock Reynolds,” provost and president-elect Peter Salovey ’86PhD told reporters at a press preview in December.

One source of revenue that wasn’t considered was an admission charge. As it has been for decades, admission to the gallery and to any special exhibitions within it is free to the public—abundance for all.

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