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The Continuing History of the Scaife Galleries

After 1994, visitors used a corridor that cut directly through the serpentine galleries.







When the Sarah Scaife Galleries opened in 1974, their pristine white walls and abundant natural light were not only considered the best and the purest way to view art – the galleries were also seen as a completely neutral space. Leon Arkus, then Director of the museum, noted, “The visitor will find that nothing intrudes upon his seeing paintings and sculptures – nothing competes with art for attention.” Architecture was quietly supportive, but not intrusive.

The Scaife Galleries, made possible by a gift of the Scaife Family and Foundation, more than doubled the exhibition space of the Museum of Art. Nearly half of the 125,000 square feet was for the permanent collection, and the rest of the space was devoted to a children’s studio, theater, offices, café, and bookstore. With the support of Mrs. Sarah Scaife, the museum had recently purchased a number of major works that are today considered the anchors of the collection – Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, works by Monet, Renoir, Degas, and others that any museum would be honored to have. These acquisitions turned what had been a provincial collection in Pittsburgh into a significant museum collection, and the new galleries were required to exhibit the art properly.

Mrs. Scaife died in 1965, and her family and the Scaife Foundation presented the galleries to Carnegie Institute in her memory.

A decade later, in 1984, the galleries were completely reinstalled, and then again in 1994. These were changes necessitated by the growth of the collection, as well as by the need that every active museum has to periodically study and assess its holdings. The success of the Second Century Fund in providing financial support for acquisitions, in particular the creation of the Heinz Family Fund and the Henry L. Hillman Fund, put the museum among the top nationally for resources for new acquisitions. Since 1974, the collection has grown and changed, and continues to develop. In thirty years there have also been improvements in the environmental technology used by museums to preserve collections, and these changes need to be considered. Thus, in the dsummer of 2002, the museum embarked on a renovation that will require another reinstallation of the collection. The Scaife Galleries will reopen to the public on October 4, 2003.

“ Of the many museums built in the 1970s, this is among the half dozen best,” says Richard Armstrong, Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art. “It receives people well, it functions very cleanly, and its greatest attribute is the incomparable light in the galleries. It’s not dated. It is truly very sophisticated architecture. It simplifies and elevates the Beaux-Arts ideals in the Alden and Harlow building next door. It expunges decoration and exalts the idea of the building as a container and a noble stage.”

Its strength, in fact, is evident in the graciousness with which it accommodates changing attitudes toward exhibiting works of art, a graciousness characteristic of the architect who created it.

“ He was an unselfish guy,” Trustee James L. Winokur says of architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. “He kept the old building out front. He was not terribly concerned about getting credit, just concerned about doing the job right, and he did do it right.

“ I had a lot of adventures with Ed Barnes, and I came to have great respect for him,” adds Winokur, who has been a trustee of the museum of art since 1967 and visited the construction site several times a week back in the early 1970s. “The Scaife building fell right into place. It couldn’t have been done at a better time, and it couldn’t have been done better.”

The Importance of Context
After ten years of living in that building, however, in 1984 museum curators and then director John R. Lane found that the long, simple corridors and flat white walls did not provide the best setting for some of the older works of art. Small paintings by Old Masters might look better in a smaller space, with a warmer tone on the walls. An Impressionist scene of a woman in a bathtub, intimate to begin with, has different requirements from an Anselm Kiefer painting that shouts for attention.

“ Every historical era has ideas of what is neutral,” says curator of fine arts Louise Lippincott. “In the 1850s, a dark red wall was neutral. In the 1950s, a stark white wall was neutral. In the 1990s, a concrete warehouse wall was neutral. None of them is neutral.

A history in pictures

1. The Scaife Galleries were added to the east wing of Carnegie Institute on Forbes Avenue in 1974.

2. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes said that perhaps no
other new museum in the country was equally designed to show paintings in the soft light of a changing sky. In the decade
1974-84, the galleries looked like this.
3. This construction photo reveals the large skylights on top of the building that send diffused light
to the gallery walls. In 1984 the square overhead skylights were added and the high walls were curved.
4. In 1994 sculpture and decorative arts were more fully integrated
into the permanent collection
of paintings.

Lately the museum has been pondering how context determines what people see. In the exhibition Light!, for example, visitors observed how the light in which a painting was produced, as well as the light in which it is exhibited, affects its appearance. In Panopticon, the curators experimented with proximity, even crowding. “We decided to try things,” as Lippincott says, “that
would be inappropriate in a permanent installation. We deliberately went against the architecture in the galleries. We took spaces that are designed to be clean, modern open boxes and filled them up with clutter… Because we knew [during the gallery restoration] most of the collection after 1945 would be on view elsewhere, it seemed appropriate to use an earlier aesthetic.”

Paintings hung close together and stacked on top of each other were seen in a new way by museum visitors. People were able to make comparisons without thinking about what they were doing. “They had a much deeper experience
of the pictures as pictures than they had ever had before,” Lippincott adds. These experiences will inform the new installation, which must accommodate
a wide range of works.

“ No one setting will flatter works from seven centuries,” says Lippincott, adding that many of the paintings in the collection, especially those in her department, were not created to be exhibited in a museum at all, but were instead destined for houses or churches, used for worship, education, or recording history.

A Gallery with Good Bones
“ We love the building Barnes designed,” says Lippincott. “The spaces and proportions of the galleries are beautiful and suitable for any kind of art you want to put there.” The building has demonstrated that it has good bones. The thing that keeps changing is what visitors need from it and what the collection demands of it.

As Lane said presciently of the 1984 reinstallation, “We have tried to follow the principle of reversibility, so that in the event that the museum feels it needs to have another new look a decade from now, none of the modifications we have made will be irreversible ‘hard architecture.’ We have designed a special installation for the permanent collection as it now exists. The collection is a living thing, however, and in time it will be necessary to rethink the designs.”

The 1984 reinstallation maintained the original structure of the gallery, but added new partitions and wing walls to break up the space and create smaller rooms and galleries. The addition of subtle greens and grays on the walls softened the appearance and provided additional ways to demarcate space, and the combination of the decorative arts with fine arts gave a richer understanding of a period.

With the perspective that history brings, curators saw new ways to connect works of art. These connections were inhibited by the original design –
a lengthy hallway bent back on itself,
a chronological walk through art history that told the visitor which direction
to take.

In 1994, architect Richard Gluckman broke through the walls to create open doorways, dispensing with the long corridor and allowing the visitor more choices about which way to proceed. Some doorways were narrowed to create rooms with
a particular light or character. Skylights that had been covered during earlier reinstallations were uncovered, and
in one gallery a suspended ceiling was removed to accommodate the great height of Stuart Davis’ Composition Concrete.

“ The problem of building a fresh new building alongside an old one is an age-old design problem,” said architect Barnes back in 1974. “New structures must have their own identity, but at the same time the scale and color and flow of people in the buildings around must be respected.”
The quiet presence of the Scaife Galleries, now venerable in their own right, is as essential a part of the Oakland cityscape today as was its nineteenth-century predecessor.

“Everybody Came”
There were purple and red anemones all over the Scaife foyer for the opening celebration in 1974. “They were brilliant, simple and sculptural,” recalls Toto Fisher, a long-time board member and a docent at the Museum of Art. “Mr. and Mrs. Richard Scaife had a wonderful dinner party on the Friday night, and then Saturday night was the public opening. Everybody came. There was enormous excitement, and enormous gratitude that the Scaifes would do this for the city.

“ I remember the first time I went up to the Scaife Galleries,” she continues, reminiscing about the years of con-struction. “Leon [Arkus] and I climbed a huge ladder where the stairs are. We had hard hats. And I thought, I’m going to remember this when I go up those stairs in the future. It was a thrilling time.”

The ability to adapt is one of the Scaife Galleries great strengths. As the collection continues to grow, as welearn more about visual perception, conservation and climate control, the Scaife Galleries continues to be re-imagined, reinstalled, and once again made new.

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