Carnegie Museum of Art uses color, storytelling, and eclectic pairings to showcase its permanent collection in a new light.
The new sculpture gallery
Two years ago when Lynn Zelevansky, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art, first approached Louise Lippincott about reimagining how the museum presents its permanent collection within the Scaife Galleries, she did what she has always done. She took a deep breath, rolled up her sleeves, and got busy.
The public got its first look at the new Impressionism, sculpture, Realism, and Aestheticism galleries this past September. But the behind-the-scenes story dates back nearly four decades.
A gift from the Scaife Foundation in memory of Sarah Mellon Scaife, the galleries debuted in 1974. Since then, just about every decade has marked the start of a new era as all or part of its 155,000 square feet has undergone renovations, guided by the growth of the museum’s holdings as well as evolving perspectives about how to best display them. Lippincott, the museum’s longtime curator of fine arts, has been at the forefront of the last four reinstallations, responsible for galleries that feature art before 1945. The museum completed the last major overhaul, a 17-month-long renovation, in 2003.
This time around, while the initial scope of work was limited to four galleries that cover the 19th and early 20th centuries, the stage is set for a decidedly different take on the museum’s collections. The linear thinking that a chronological order inspires gives way to the storytelling and perspective provided by a thematic approach. (Stay tuned: On June 8, the museum will reveal the reinstallation of the seven galleries dedicated to modern and contemporary art in advance of the 2013 Carnegie International.)
“Our goal is to provide historical context,” Lippincott says, “in order to provide a richer experience for the visitor.”
Combining decorative arts with fine art, for instance, provides a deeper understanding of a period and new ways to connect works of art. Cabinet with mirror (c. 1860) by Gustave Herter, for example, looms large against a boldly painted accent wall in the Realism gallery. A grand, ornate, and meticulously crafted furnishing, it stands as a complement to the intricate brushwork and decorative frames that are characteristic of the accompanying paintings. Together, the objects portray a time of conspicuous consumption.
Regardless of the story to be conveyed, “The art is always our focus,” explains Lippincott. “The rooms we create and the arrangements we develop are all designed to bring out the art.”
To achieve that goal, Lippincott assembled a dream team of Museum of Art colleagues: curators Linda Benedict-Jones (photography), Rachel Delphia (decorative arts and design), and Amanda Zehnder and Akemi May (both fine arts), along with local architectural firm Springboard Design.
“It was an interesting and collaborative process,” says Springboard principal Paul Rosenblatt. “Each curator had strong feelings and favorite pieces. Our goal was to bring a sense of cohesion to the project as a whole while maintaining the individual character of the galleries.”
Although some of those favorites, such as the paintings by Pittsburgh’s George Hetzel, were lost to back rooms, others, like George Grey Barnard’s recently restored, nearly 1,650- pound sculpture, Urn of Life, found new homes. Made of white Carrara marble, the stunning creation—an unfinished funerary monument made to hold the ashes of deceased composer Anton Seidl—hadn’t been on view for many years.
Bold color—ranging from Rosemary Sprig to Stuart Gold, Pomegranate, and Tarrytown Green, not to mention the period blue that dominates the Aestheticism or “art for art’s sake” gallery—also found a home within the galleries. These hues are not only striking, but more true to life. After all, the 150 paintings, photographs, sculpture, and decorative arts objects were not created nor meant to be viewed in a white-washed world. Like today, mid- to late-19th century homes were the original showrooms for the art and furnishings of the day.
Still, the “aha moment” didn’t arrive until the walls went up, notes Lippincott. Not built as barriers, these new, strategic partitions are designed to provide focal points and to give shape to new spaces within each gallery. “They allow us to create more intimate spaces and radically change the experience of the visitor,” says Lippincott.
Among the changes are two big surprises: The museum has been collecting sculpture for 15 years and has now acquired enough works that they warrant their own room (gallery 4). Also for the first time, the museum’s prized Impressionism collection is in a single location (gallery 8).
Within their new space, placed away from the walls and without colorful paintings surrounding them, the sculptures “come to life,” Lippincott says. Having the room—literally—to walk around a sculpture and view it from all angles, as its creator intended, allows the piece to reveal the nuances of color in bronzes, plaster, and marble. “You learn a different piece of each object’s story with each angle that you view,” says Lippincott. Take Auguste Rodin’s The Hand of God, an important early cast made during the sculptor’s lifetime based on his original marble work. Now that it’s moved to center stage, visitors can see that the back of the sculpture is hollow and open. “This unfinished aspect is part of what was of interest to the artist,” she adds.
The new Aestheticism gallery
Also for the first time, photography has a permanent presence in the galleries as part of the Aestheticism gallery, and this small grouping of images will rotate several times annually. Photographs by Clarence H. White, Emily Pitchford, and others currently hint at the museum’s rich history in the Pictorialist movement.
Zelevansky likes what she sees. “The new installations emphasize our uniqueness, highlight major works, and attempt to make the art as accessible and compelling as possible to a broad spectrum of the public,” she says.
Fortunately for museumgoers, it’s just the beginning. Four galleries down, seven to go.