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New Contemporary Art Museum on Memorial Drive Seems a Done Deal

On the Waterfront

By Jason M. Goins, Crimson Staff Writer

Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museum (HUAM) James B. Cuno would like nothing more than to build a new University museum on the banks of the Charles River, at the current site of Mahoney's Garden Center.

The new museum is as yet unnamed, unfunded and, for the moment, unapproved. Yet the biggest question about its construction seems not to be if a museum will be built, but rather how many.

One Faculty source says Cuno's idea has become "the plan to beat" in the secretive horse-race to develop one of the last large swaths of available land in Harvard's Cambridge home. In a twist, the contents of the Sackler Gallery could move to a second building on the site--creating a museum complex to rival HUAM's current Quincy Street hub.

But this ambitious project comes at a time when classroom and office space are increasingly scarce on campus.

How the art museum plan became the frontrunner is a story of Harvard politics and fortuitous timing--and an anomaly in the University chain of command.

The Plan

The plan most likely to be approved for the Mahoney's site, along Memorial Drive just east of Western Avenue, involves the construction of a new museum to house the University's collection of contemporary art.

The site would also likely contain some type of performance space, movie theater or offices for student use.

A less certain possibility involves moving the contents of the Sackler Gallery, currently located on Broadway Avenue, to a second museum to be built on the site.

A committee charged with examining potential uses for the site is currently weighing alternatives for the remainder of the site, including a hotel the size of the Inn at Harvard, a conference center, or graduate student housing. A final possibility, to move the contents of the Peabody Museum to the site, seems to have already been ruled out.

"If anything is a foregone conclusion, the museum is because no one has proposed anything that would be better for the main site at this stage," says one source close to the committee.

Uncertain Development

Cuno introduced the notion of a new museum to University President Neil L. Rudenstine several years ago, according to the Faculty source.

The idea first became public at a November community meeting to discuss renovations to the Fogg and Sackler museums.

At that meeting, held primarily to discuss University plans for a tunnel underneath Broadway to connect the Fogg and Sackler museums, Cuno hinted obliquely that he would like to build a museum on the river.

Cuno said he had asked world-renowned Italian-architect Renzo Piano, who attended the meeting, to examine the range of possibilities for the Mahoney's site.

The next anyone heard of the project was in February, when Cuno had a "Dear Neighbor" letter sent to residents of the Peabody Terrace area near the Mahoney's site. In the letter, Cuno addressed preliminarily the "exploration of the possibility of creating a new space for the Harvard University Art Museums along the Charles River."

In the tentatively worded letter Cuno cautioned, "It has not yet been determined that a museum space is the best institutional use for the property, it is an idea that I have encouraged the University to explore," but promised to communicate further with the community when circumstances warranted.

But, over pre-frosh weekend in April, suddenly the plan seemed no longer tentative, given curiously surefooted comments by Rudenstine.

When a prospective student questioned Rudenstine on the lack of performance and rehearsal space during the president's address to the visiting high school seniors, Rudenstine made reference to a new art museum that would include "a cinematic center" that would show "classical" movies and house dance practice space and student offices.

But other officials in the weeks following this comment were unwilling to commit to something so concrete.

"There is an ongoing assessment now to determine whether museum use, or museum coupled with other uses such as housing or other uses all together are desirable for the institution on that site," says Mary H. Power, Harvard's director of community relations for Cambridge. "We're still assessing the range of options for the site."

University Spokesperson Joe Wrinn was more noncommittal.

"I don't want to try assume what he was thinking, whether to validate it or verify it," Wrinn says.

Paul S. Grogan, University vice president for government, community and public affairs, says that nothing is certain about the project despite Rudenstine's public comment.

"One virtue of being the president is that you can say whatever you want," Grogan says.

Still Missing

To be sure, any development in Cambridge faces intense scrutiny from a University administration attempting to grapple with space crunches across a number of departments and Faculties.

"There are so many needs, any time there is a major site, and there are very few left in Cambridge, there is great interest," says another administration source.

Harvard's Cambridge land is a diminishing commodity, the source says. "There are little places, apart from that, there's not much left and we're not likely to be able to expand any place in Cambridge" one Faculty member says.

Among the most pressing needs that have been identified for the University are for more classroom, office, performance and rehearsal space.

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 has said that more space could be used for student groups. Outgoing Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III has voiced his own desires for a student center, though at the moment this seems unlikely.

"I am very aware of the need for space for student activities of various kinds," Lewis says.

He adds that the need for undergraduate theater space will only become more acute if the Agassiz Theater is repossessed by Radcliffe in seven years--a term agreed upon in the creation of the new Institute.

To the Front of the Line.

Though Cuno's last public statement about the project--the "Dear Neighbor" letter sent out in February--seemed tentative, a larger, more aggressive effort to get this project approved is underway.

Cuno's desire for a new museum is likely rooted in the fact that the University has no permanent exhibition of contemporary art. As other Boston museums consider expansion and Harvard's coffers overflow at the end of its Capital Campaign, now may seem like the best time to construct a major new gallery.

Cuno may have an advantage in his relatively unique position in the University hierarchy. As head of an "allied institution" (other such entities include the Harvard Forest and the new Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study), Cuno has no dean between himself and Rudenstine.

"Cuno reports to the president or the provost," says the Faculty source. "That's what Jim Cuno did and he found a receptive president."

Rudenstine is known to be an art enthusiast, and his wife, Angelica, has been called one of the world's leading art historians.

According to the Faculty source, by appealing directly to Neil Rudenstine years ago, Cuno "started before the [University approval] process existed. He sort of had tentative approval for the site before the committee existed."

For his part, Cuno denies reaping special benefits from the modified arrangement.

"While we have responsibilities of setting and meeting our own budgets in the art museums, they all have to be approved by the central administration of the University and pass the scrutiny of the president," he says. "There is nothing we do independent of the University."

Cuno's lobbying efforts have generated media attention, including write-ups in the Boston Globe--and apparently some public support--for the building, despite the fact that it has not yet been approved by Harvard.

But public support won't necessarily translate into support within Harvard.

"The University is not going to make a decision based on what's been in the newspaper," Grogan says. "It's just far too important a site and much more an internal process."

But one sign that Cuno's project may have an inside track in Mass. Hall is the membership of the committee convened to consider it. Working outside of the University's usual space committee, the Mahoney's committee is stacked with people with professional interests in art.

Finally, architect Renzo Piano's talent and charm may be easing the project's path. By getting Piano to turn from planning for the Fogg and Sackler renovations to this new Mahoney project, Cuno bought a very convincing advocate for the project.

"I've been won over by Renzo Piano," says the Faculty source. "Renzo Piano is a secret weapon. Whenever he presents something I am ready to build it. In person al and design intelligence, he's one of the world's premier architects."

Why Not Allston?

Of course, for all the wrangling over space in Cambridge, Harvard's newest purchases--more than 50 acres in the working-class Allston neighborhood--would seem to be likely candidates for cultural development, providing a convenient introductory peace offering to a community originally upset with the secretive nature of Harvard's purchases.

But Allston has apparently been nixed by all sides.

Cuno says the University art museums primary purpose as serving the student population--a mission he says requires the museums to be in close proximity to students, and renders, in his view, Allston, an impracticable option.

"[A museum site must be] contiguous or proximate to where many Harvard students live and where the study and take classes," Cuno says.

Kevin A. McCluskey, Harvard's director of community relations for Boston and the point person on Allston says that the museum development is too small and comes too soon for the University's plans on Allston.

"Any development of any of the new Allston properties will be done within the context of a larger, well thought out plan and I think that would argue against us taking one particular aspect of the University and sighting it there," McCluskey said. "That land is not going to be developed by Harvard in any sort of piecemeal fashion."

What Next?

Problems still remain with the site. For instance, administrators acknowledge that even without trekking to Allston, many students may find the Mahoney's site far from their beaten path.

"This site is pretty far away. I wouldn't rush to connect student needs to this particular site," Lewis says.

And Cuno agrees that a special effort will have to be made to bring students into the building.

Approving Cuno's plans would, however, change the face of a more central part of the campus. If the Sackler's collections are moved to the River, then the Sackler building could be used for additional office or academic space in an area near the Yard.

On the site itself, the only major wrangling left seems as if it will be over the non-museum portion of the site. People involved with University finances are said to be more in favor of a hotel on the site, and others favor graduate student housing or a conference center.

The plans will be finalized by the fall, but University officials would not estimate how long it would be before the museums would be built and operational.

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