After 14 years and an approximately $135-million outlay, the newly renovated Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven opened its doors on Dec. 12 to near-universal acclaim. With an upgrade by architects Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott of New York-based Ennead Architects, it has added 25,000 square feet of exhibition space (now totaling 65,000 square feet), permitting a far greater selection of its holdings to be exhibited.
The biggest architectural intervention was the connecting of three contiguous buildings—the neo-Gothic Street Hall of 1866; the Italianate Old Yale Art Gallery of 1928; and the magnificent 1953 modernist building of Louis Kahn—to create a single museum that now ranks as one of this country’s great art institutions and, with Harvard, as its foremost teaching museum. As part of that merger, an elevator and staircase were inserted between the Old Yale Art Gallery and Street Hall.
Otherwise, the architects kept their touch light, preserving the facades of the two older buildings and focusing on interior spaces, restoring many to their original state, with historical details and finishes meticulously respected. Only one addition was introduced: the clean, glass-and-zinc-clad box plus outdoor sculpture terrace that is the spacious new fourth floor of the Old Yale Art Gallery.
The variously sized and designed galleries flow into each other smoothly, through open doorways that often create a sequence of vistas to draw the visitor onward. The walls are sometimes painted rich red, gray, green or violet in the galleries of historic art, while white is usually reserved for contemporary galleries. Altogether, the museum’s exhibition spaces form a splendid showcase for the YUAG’s ever expanding, increasingly encyclopedic collections, which comprise over 200,000 objects at the moment and reflect American tastes since 1832, when artist John Trumbull gave his Revolutionary War paintings to Yale, its first gift of art. The gifts have kept coming and are now divided between 11 curatorial departments, the Indo-Pacific division the newest, its ravishing textiles and carvings a standout.
Yale’s numismatic holdings are the largest owned by any American university. Treasures from the Near East include art and artifacts from Dura-Europos in Syria, and Assyrian reliefs. Yale’s Italian collection, luxuriously installed on dusky violet walls, is one of the “finest in existence,” chief curator Laurence Kanter told A.i.A. (it includes Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s eccentric 1475-80 painting Hercules and Deianira as well as works by Guido da Siena, Duccio and Raphael), and was originally owned by newspaper editor and art collector James Jackson Jarves. The collector offered the works to the museum as collateral when he lost his fortune, and was ultimately unable to redeem them.
The American collection, housed in Street Hall, is another star, with major paintings by Homer and Eakins and choice examples of the decorative arts. The Huntington Mansion Murals, a series of appealingly eclectic Gilded Age paintings by several of the leading artists of the day, now mostly forgotten, embellish the galleries’ upper walls and ceilings. They were commissioned by railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington and his young wife Arabella for their residence and given to Yale in 1926.
Modernity and a stake in contemporary art arrived with Katherine S. Dreier, an art patron who founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 with Duchamp and Man Ray, and transferred its stellar Modernist holdings—the three prime Mondrians up now, for instance, in “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” through July 14, 2013—to Yale in 1941. “Once Removed: Sculpture’s Changing Frame of Reference,” another temporary exhibition on view in the Kahn building through Apr. 7, 2013, is a nod to the present, taking sculpture off its pedestal and into the expanded field. Also culled from Yale’s own collection, it includes alums Matthew Barney, Haim Steinbach and Do Ho Suh, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art Cathleen Chaffee pointed out to A.i.A.
“It’s free,” Jock Reynolds, YUAG’s director and the irresistible force behind this prodigious project reminded visitors to a preview last week. “The art wasn’t given to us so we could make money with it.”