Gregory M. Donley Senior Writer/Designer
The visitor’s experience of an art museum is based on an extraordinarily complex assimilation of the narratives of art history, the vision of a museum director, the individual tastes of dozens of curators, the expressed needs of every kind of visitor, and the design sensibility of the people who figure out how to put it all together. For a project like the renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the task of planning which works of art will go where involves years of negotiation and puzzling.
In the first stages of that process, the museum engaged the services of gallery planners Quenroe Associates. In a 2005 interview, Quenroe project manager John Klink summed up the challenge: “There is no average visitor to an art museum, so we’re always thinking about 20 school kids with four adults and a docent. If it works for them, it will work for anyone. If you make the labels at an appropriate height and type size so a fourth-grader can read it, it will also be functional for older people and those in wheelchairs. And if you can fit 25 people in the gallery in such a way that they can all see, then you haven’t overcrowded it.”
Jeffrey Strean, the museum’s director of design and architecture, elaborates: “The work has to be accessible to everyone and still express the intellectual ideas behind the presentation. That brings up interesting issues because the ideas about our collections do change. The installations are responsive to current thinking.”
The installation concept has evolved over the past two years. “At first,” says Strean, “and quite naturally, the curators were thinking in terms of the collection, connecting object to object to object. Now we’re looking at it with a more holistic attitude that considers the building, the environment, the light, and the collection all together as a coherent experience. We’re thinking about leading people from room to room, from space to space; then when you get into a particular room, the scale changes and you go from object to object. This is very much Timothy Rub’s approach. It’s quite obvious in the east wing. The alignments of the interior spaces are along a single axis and you won’t really
see the works of art until you turn the corner.”
One of the fascinating revelations of the project has been to see how restoring the 1916 building back to its original state has brought it closer to Rafael Viñoly’s vision for the new construction. “In the 1916 building,” says Strean, “the architects clearly thought about the spaces in a holistic way. No matter where you stand, there’s a view into another space that beckons you toward it. The difference between now and 1916 is that today our collection is so strong—there are so many masterpieces to choose from—that once you enter a room we can always find a way to make sure that the visual focal point is also a major work.
“The first thing visitors will notice in the 1916 building is how the sense of the overall space is affected by the restoration of daylight,” Strean continues. “This was how the building was originally designed, but almost no one will remember it because the areas above the rooms beside the rotunda were filled in with offices back in the 1920s. They were running out of space right from the beginning! For decades, one of these rooms was a sort of transitional space into the 1958 building. It has been restored to its original state and is now a gallery of Neoclassical art. When you enter the south entrance, you’ll be able to look through the rotunda and see David’s Cupid and Psyche and Canova’s Terpsichore. Pretty spectacular.”
The overall gallery sequence in the 1916 building preserves the original concept of the renovation. “[Cleveland] will have something,” Klink observed, “that most museums don’t. Starting downstairs in the ancient world, you follow this spine from Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Aegean, and Greek and Roman to Early Christian, Late Antique, Migration, and Romanesque to Gothic and Medieval, and up to the Renaissance. Then you walk up the stairs toward the rotunda and literally and symbolically rise into Mannerism and the Italian Baroque.” From there, the galleries around the perimeter take visitors right up to American art of the early 20th century. Viñoly’s scheme of four freestanding buildings allows the organization of four “museums within the museum,” each presenting its own self-contained narrative—whether of European art, Asian art, modern and contemporary, or the distinct traditions of African and Ancient American art.
Those stories help tie the sequence together, but to Strean the first priority of gallery design is always to create beautiful spaces. “Our role, while it has to facilitate the storytelling of the curator’s train of thought and meet the needs of the various users, has to be first and foremost about the direct aesthetic impact,” he says. “In that way, we as designers are perhaps most like the general public. You shouldn’t have to read the label first in order to appreciate a work of art.”
Cleveland Art, February 2008