Moving Pictures

Despite obstacles, Harvard museums look forward to Allston

More than two decades ago, the Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM) hatched a plan to build a skybridge between the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the Fogg Art Museum. Designed to carry people and art, it offered the possibility of a physical link between museums that, although next door to each other, are seperated by more than just Broadway. The bridge never got built, but current plans for renovations and a new museum in Allston will seek to span the gaps in the University’s museums.

Over the years, the University has always grappled with how to reconcile the split identities of its art collection, which now sits in three distinct museums: the Western-focused Fogg, the Central European Busch Reisinger, and the Ancient and Eastern Sackler. Now, HUAM hopes that the University’s expansion into Allston will finally provide it with the space necessary to increase the amount of art that it keeps on display and create a unified image of the museums.

But with the recent postponement of discussions about the proposed art center intended to house the University’s modern and contemporary art collection, with designs still in their early stages, and with community opposition rallied against the project, the future is still uncertain.

MUSEUM MAMBO

The Fogg Art Museum, on 32 Quincy Street, has not changed substantially in the last 80 years. Despite more modern additions such as Werner Otto Hall, home to the Busch-Reisinger Museum, the core of the Fogg is much as it was when first built. The museum has substantial infrastructure issues problematic for its art—including a lack of modern climate control and buckling walls in the Busch-Reisinger—and has long needed renovations.

In 1998, renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano came to Cambridge to design a new art museum on Memorial Drive. Piano, who is also currently working on expansions of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, won the Pritzer Prize, the architecture world’s highest honor, that same year.

Piano’s two-building project was slated to create gallery space for modern and contemporary art in one building and serve as a new home for the Sackler Museum’s ancient and non-Western collection in the other. But community opposition put an end to the plans. Detractors of the design cited the possibility that its emphasis on drawing large crowds to exhibits might create additional traffic in the area.

The current plans for HUAM involve multiple phases in both Cambridge and Allston, reshuffling the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler Museums as buildings and renovations are completed. The project will begin following commencement in June of 2008 with the closing of HUAM’s 32 Quincy Street locale. The Fogg and Busch-Reisinger will effectively move into the Sackler Building for the interim, displaying highlights of each collection in cozy quarters during construction of the new Allston location.

ACROSS THE RIVER

Although the renovation of HUAM’s building on Quincy Street is still early in the conceptual stages, HUAM officials confirm that Renzo Piano will spearhead the renovation.

The cornerstone of the new HUAM will be a cultural center on Barry’s Corner in Allston, designed by architect Kevin Daly. The building will house all three museums until the Fogg is ready to reopen its doors, a date HUAM spokesman Daron Manoogian estimates as sometime in 2013.

However, not all of the art will return to Cambridge. As the rejected 1998 plans testify, HUAM’s modern and contemporary art collection is growing beyond its currently cramped gallery space.

“The Art Museums have been committed to modern and contemporary art since the 1930s, when the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art and the Busch-Reisinger Museum first began mounting exhibitions of contemporary art and acquiring important examples for their collections,” Lentz wrote last year in an e-mail.

“There were no clear plans to develop the necessary facilities to fully exhibit or provide access to many of these works which require larger and more flexible spaces,” Lentz wrote.

But with Allston in sight, Lentz says, “We are finally at the point at which those facilities are imminent, and we will be able to wholly dedicate ourselves to the exhibition and study of modern and contemporary works.”

Though a few modern and contemporary pieces will still be displayed at 32 Quincy Street, the majority of such works will be sent to Allston permanently.

Kevin Daly, architect for the new arts center, says the Barry’s Corner location will be a positive addition to the neighborhood.

“With that particular setting there are a lot of legitimately high expectations of what it could become,” Daly says.

Citing the need to organize the building in accordance with the museum’s public mission, Daly also emphasized its unique role as a teaching museum. The promised prominence of “study centers,” where patrons can request and view individual pieces, is one of the clearest manifestations of didactic ambition.

“They provide close, intimate encounters with our works of art,” Manoogian says of the spaces.

The Allston building will also house conservation labs, which Daly compared to a Renaissance studio or Parisian atelier. Both these and the study centers will be visible from the street, relating the activities of the museum to city outside.

The center’s public education program will ideally serve as a cornerstone for its interaction with the neighborhood. Children will be able to paint and draw in a room designed especially for them.

Daly points out that the arts center is inherently one of Harvard’s more public spaces. “It is one of the only buildings you don’t need a Harvard ID to get into.”

ART IN THE COMMUNITY

But late last month, Harvard’s plans for its art center in the Allston were put on hold.

After a decade of meeting with residents to discuss Harvard’s expansion into Allston, the University released project notifications for a science complex and art center, in addition to a master plan, which forecasts Harvard’s expansion into the area as far into the future as 2057.

Over the last month, Allston residents have expressed concerns in community blogs and at meetings with Harvard officials that the art center’s proposed building on Western Avenue does not fit community needs. Many cited building heights and a roof garden that would boast a view of residents’ backyards as main concerns.

Despite Daly’s claim that the art center will be community-focused, Lentz said at the Feb. 12 Harvard-Allston Task Force meeting that HUAM is “not the MFA,” emphasizing that the museums are not attendance driven.

“What Harvard is saying is that their mission is to allow experts in the field to have close and intimate contact with the works of art,” Harvard-Allston Task Force member Harry Mattison said in an interview in February. “Because of the difference in their funding structures, they can be as private and insular as they want to.”

And with the overlapping deadlines for comment and review periods for the three projects, University and city officials decided to postpone discussions for the master plan and art museum in order to focus on the science complex.

“Basically what we said to them is this is too much for us to try to digest and absorb and give you feedback on them,” says Harvard-Allston Task Force member and Allston native Paul Berkeley.

Senior Project Manager for the Boston Redevelopment Authority—the city’s agency responsible for development review—also says that the scope of Harvard’s plans was overwhelming.

“I think they realized that it wasn’t in the interest of maintaining a good relationship and building a good long-term relationship to progress with things when people were feeling like they couldn’t keep with the pace,” he says.

Daly also says that delaying the plan will allow the University to fill in the gaps in the current proposal.

“It gives the museum a chance to catch its breath and verify a lot of the internal details before re-initiating the public process,” he says.

Manoogian says that while HUAM has not had much of an opportunity to speak with the community about what the museum will do, he is confident that they will come to an agreement. “The more they start to learn about us and what we have to offer, they’ll be glad to have the arts center in their community.”

And Berkeley said that the community concerns do not stem from dissatisfaction with the general idea of erecting an art museum in his neighborhood.

“It’s never been a location that the community has had any access to,” he said, speaking of Barry’s Corner. “It’s been rough and industrial and if it ended up a museum, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

—Staff writer Anna K. Barnet can be reached at abarnet@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Laura A. Moore can be reached at lamoore@fas.harvard.edu.