Trading Spaces: Art To Migrate During Museum Renovations

Unnamed photo
Kara A. Culligan

Many paintings and sculptures from the Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger Museums will be moved across the Charles River to the Citizens Bank building on Western Avenue in Allston during renovations. Some express concern that the move, slat

The Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM) recently announced a multi-year plan to overhaul its museums and to stake a claim in the University’s new campus across the Charles River in Allston.

Cabot Museums Director Thomas W. Lentz oversaw the project and sought to incorporate feedback from numerous faculty members and students in the History of Art and Architecture department, as well as from Harvard officials responsible for the planning and development of the new campus.

Under Lentz’s scrutiny, HUAM plans to renovate its historic building on 32 Quincy St., which currently houses both the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger Museums. During the renovations, the collections of the two museums will be stored in the Citizens Bank building on Western Avenue in Allston. Daron J. Manoogian, the public relations officer for HUAM, said this is a project that will ultimately facilitate the research and study of art at Harvard.

“Most of the renovations were driven by the need for our building to be renovated,” says Manoogian. “Air quality, building structure, plumbing... There’s too much important art in there for it not to be in a place that’s state-of-the-art.”

The renovations are set to start just prior to the 2008-2009 school year. The building will be redesigned by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who is best known for the edgy design of Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou.

The most fervent support for the project comes from the Student Friends of Harvard University Art Museums, an undergraduate group which coordinates events with the museums and promotes the museums’ collections.

“We’re excited for the renovation,” Alexis M. Kusy ’07 and Caroline L. Schopp ’07, who are, respectively, the president and vice president of the organization wrote in an e-mail. “In the future, we will be able to use the Fogg as a central location for teaching students in improved gallery spaces about art and hosting events.”

According to Michael A. Jaffe ’06, an economics concentrator who counts the Student Friends of HUAM as one of his primary extracurriculars, the museums garner support from faculty and students because of their emphasis on easy access to art and their user-friendly approach to research and analysis.

“It’s a really great program because they make an effort to involve the students [and] integrate them into the greater Harvard community,” says Jaffe.

This approach to the study of art has its roots in the early 1930s, when the building at 32 Quincy Street first pioneered the “Fogg method”: a revolutionary approach to art history. This method, which has since been adopted by other institutions in the same realm of academia, “uses the scientific method to study art, giving you a one-on-one encounter with what you’re studying,” says Paolo J. A. Yap ’07.

This richness of history—and a degree of apprehension about its potential disintegration—has generated concerns from students about the redesign of the Quincy Street building. Jaffe says it would be “a great shame” if the renovations compromised the historical value of the building itself.

Yap, who is considering applying to a Ph.D. program in art history, also echoes that concern. He says that the building’s proximity to the Yard is a significant feature in itself: “Science and technology and business, they’re much more forward-looking disciplines. Art History is tradition,” says Yap. “And displacing it from the historical community might not help.”

According to Luann Abrahams, the Assistant Director for Administration at HUAM, one of the museum’s many goals has been to preserve its presence in the Yard, while conducting the renovations. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which houses ancient, Islamic, and Indian art, will not be renovated and will instead feature a “best-of” collection culled from the archives of the three museums.

“We’ve got to make [the art] accessible to everyone [in the interim],” says Abrahams. “For example, right now, it’s hard to use the Sackler collections for study because of space limitations. Accessibility is a hallmark, a key word of this project.”

Even though the rest of the art will move to an office building in Allston, Manoogian insists that the move there has already received tremendous support. “The interim site is not going to be a warehouse. It will function as a museum. We are hiring an architect to redesign the building.”

Manoogian says that there will be exhibitions, public programming, research, teaching, and storage space for the 250,000 objects in the collection—which comprise the sixth-largest collection of art in the world. HUAM employs a staff of 265, about 70 of whom are volunteers.

Another plan for the future establishment of a permanent site for the arts in Allston is currently being negotiated with the rest of the Allston Initiative.

“There are a number of ways this move could play out,” says Manoogian, noting that that the music department and several humanities departments are currently involved in talks about such a cultural and artistic center.

—Staff writer J. Samuel Abbott can be reached at abbott@fas.harvard.edu.