The Renaissance The Walters Art Gallery frames its three-year, $18.5 million renovation as a glorious improvement for art and art lovers.

June 02, 1998|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,SUN ART CRITIC

It's going to cost $18.5 million and take three years, and it's intended to turn what looks like a fortress into a palace of art.

Beginning this month, the Walters Art Gallery's 1974 building, housing its ancient, medieval, 19th-century and manuscript collections, will close for a complete renovation and reinstallation. The design, by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects Inc. of Boston, aims to make the building better for the art and for the people who come to see it.

Behind the scenes, there will be an overhaul of the mechanical, fire detection and security systems. But the public will see an overhaul, too: A new four-story atrium entrance with a suspended grand staircase connecting the second, third and fourth floors; an opened-up first floor with a greatly enlarged museum store; all new ceiling, wall and floor surfaces; larger entrance areas on each floor; and art installed in a clearer, easier-to-negotiate way.

"We're going to get rid of the rabbit warren look," says Walters director Gary Vikan. "We will get rid of the visual 'noise.' And there will be a totally different traffic pattern." In all, Vikan says, visiting the 1974 building will be a quite different and much more welcoming event than it has been.

On Sunday the gallery will have an open house beginning at 1 p.m. with a preview of the changes in store.

The building's grand reopening is now projected for March 2001. Meanwhile the Walters' two other buildings, the original 1904 building and the Hackerman House Museum of Asian art, will remain open. A selection of works from the 1974 building will go on view in the 1904 building, and the gallery has plans for an impressive series of temporary exhibits in the next three years: "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican," opening in November; "Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland, 1572-1764," in March; "Land of the Golden Fleece," art from the Republic of Georgia, October 1999; "Scythian Gold: Treasures from Ancient Ukraine," March 2000; "A Million and One Nights: Orientalism in American Culture 1870-1930," October 2000; and "Edouard Manet: The Still Life Paintings," January 2001.

When the 1974 building opened, it was a major advance in the history of the Walters. It almost tripled the museum's exhibition space, added an auditorium and classrooms, enhanced conservation and other staff spaces and, in general, made the Walters a much more public-oriented place. It also had six floors compared with the 1904 building's three, but stayed compatible visually in mass and height, with the same cornice line.

But there were major problems. Its mechanical systems, especially climate control, have been far from ideal. "There are now 14 degrees of heat change, from 70 to the upper 50s, and 24 points of relative humidity change, from 50 to the upper 20s," says Vikan. The renovation will make them stable within two degrees of 70 and 50, respectively. The building will also get a sprinkler system for the first time, and upgraded security will include cameras throughout the building for the first time.

From the beginning, the building seemed to say "Stay away" to the public. Its blank exterior walls looked forbidding from the outside and its gloomy, confusing interior made it difficult for the visitor to understand and negotiate.

The new glass-walled atrium should provide a vastly more welcoming, maybe even glamorous entrance, and its hanging staircase will show people where they're going.

Each floor will have a lobby area designed to greet the visitor, and surfaces will be softer: Sheetrock ceilings instead of strip metal ones; recessed lighting instead of hanging fixtures; stucco-like walls replaced with plaster; shiny slate floors replaced with carpet in gallery areas and limestone elsewhere.

Vikan also says the art objects will be shown in a more contextual way, so one will see how they reflected their time. "When you take the crucifix out of the cathedral, you also take the cathedral out of the crucifix," Vikan says.

So late Egyptian art of about 300 B.C. will meet Hellenistic Greek art of the same period. Russian, Ethiopian and Byzantine icons ++ will be shown together for the first time. Manuscripts will not only have their own gallery as before, but will also be integrated with other medieval art, as will parts of the arms and armor collection. And there will be an audio tour of the permanent collection, provided free.

The 1974 building renovation will complete a modernization and expansion of the entire Walters complex that began 13 years ago. The 1904 building received a three-year, $6 million renovation from 1985 to 1988. Hackerman House, a former 19th-century townhouse, became part of the Walters in 1985 and after a $7.5 million conversion opened as the Asian museum in 1991.

Open house

What: Slide preview of the renovated 1974 building, behind-the-scenes look at how a museum works, and video presentations of the collection

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

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