Some museums are built to stand as artistic statements. Some correct or cover up architectural mistakes of the past. Then there’s the Yale University Art Gallery, which has completed a 14-year, $135 million renovation and expansion project.
Art. That’s the first and last word those involved — the architects, Yale administrators, and donors — use when describing the project. The construction, they say, has been carried out to make sure the university’s rich and expansive collection is properly displayed.
“It’s all about the art,” says Duncan Hazard, management partner of Ennead Architects. “It’s about making the art look as great as possible. We actually believe museums are there for the art and what we do should complement and enhance the art.”
To that end, the new complex adds almost 30,000 square feet to the former 40,000 square feet of exhibition space. This was done by renovating three buildings into one continuous structure. It wasn’t easy. Yale embarked on the project in 1998, and the museum has since added thousands of works to its collection. Surprisingly, the museum never closed, but sections of it were shut down to allow construction.
“The exciting thing is that now that we’re fully open, for the first time people are going to truly see how great and extensive these collections are,” says Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. “We also corrected 280 years of deferred maintenance.”
Reynolds, 64, has been hailed as the project’s leading force. But he’s quick to point out that many others drove the museum vision. At Yale, in the mid-1990s, administrators launched an all-encompassing master plan for the arts. In 2006, the first phase of the Yale University Art Gallery’s renovation was completed with the Louis Kahn building. Later renovations extended to the 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery and the neighboring 1866 Street Hall.
John Bollier, the university’s associate vice president for facilities, said that the master plan gave Yale needed flexibility. “It’s taken continuity of leadership and continuity of vision to achieve this,” said Bollier.
The plan also wasn’t cheap. With so many competing needs at Yale, the museum project simply couldn’t have taken place without private money, said Bollier. In fact, 99 percent of the project’s $135 million price tag came from private sources. The remaining 1 percent came from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Robert Doran, the now retired chief executive officer of Wellington Management Company, played a central role, serving as the chairman of the Yale University Art Gallery’s governing board.
“One of the advantages of a university is that you have these thousands of alumni all over the world,” says Doran. “With them, in terms of raising money, the thing is to earn it. This, I think, was relatively easy in the sense that the works were so significant and the plans were so good that the combination of gifts of art and financial gifts, they kind of came pouring in. And they came at a not so easy time for raising money.”
The arts gifts were considerable, including many collections and thousands of works.
Among the highlights: In the European art galleries, the museum has put on display new acquisitions by Donatello, Pontormo, and Garofalo. In the American paintings collection, longtime patron Jerald Dillon Fessenden gave a significant work by Martin Johnson Heade, and in modern and contemporary art, another collector donated pieces by Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso, and Frank Stella, among others. The new Indo-Pacific Art department was formed after three collections were given to Yale.
Architects created a new rooftop space with temporary-exhibition galleries and a sculpture terrace. But they made sure to set it back from the roof so it would be barely seen from the street and would not overwhelm the existing historic structures.
Reynolds hopes the results will draw not only students and faculty, but the public. “It doesn’t cost you $56 to park in downtown New Haven as it does in New York,” he says. “The other thing is the museum is completely free. The experience right away is one with art, and not buying a ticket.”
Having walked through the space, Doran says he couldn’t be happier.
“The hardest thing is to do it right,” he says. “At the end of the day, when the place is finished, is the space correct? Are these spaces brilliant? Does it function properly? I think it gets an A plus.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@