On the ground level of the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new Frankel wing, two glass walls join neatly, pushing toward State Street like the prow of a ship. Right now, the space they enclose isn’t much — something more to walk around, though it affords a nice view of the recently installed Mark di Suvero sculpture “Orion.”
“Most people are surprised to find out that it’s going to be a gallery,” said UMMA director James Steward.
Once UMMA reopens during winter term, after two years of renovations and new construction, the space will house temporary exhibitions of emerging contemporary artists.
“When we figured out how we were going to site the expansion, this is the space we first started thinking of to help us capture interest of people going past,” Steward said.
Work exhibited in this gallery will employ light, movement and other elements visible through the glass. Hopefully, according to Steward, being able to see such dynamic work without barriers — save for the glass walls — will lure passerby inside.
“There’s this idea: We want to make art part of the everyday experience,” he said.
The space is part of UMMA’s efforts to make the museum — and by extension, art in general — more accessible to everyone, every day, in its position as both a University resource and a community resource. According to Steward, UMMA is the largest museum between Detroit and Chicago and people come from great distances to visit. Each visitor, whatever his or her walk of life, should feel comfortable taking in a performance at UMMA’s new auditorium, viewing ceramics in what will be the first gallery space dedicated to Korean art at an American university, or simply having a cup of coffee while enjoying the view from the new café. The café and the museum’s extended-hour “walk-through” space, which Steward is suggesting as a campus shortcut, are intended to draw otherwise unlikely visitors.
The old building and new Frankel wing will be multi-purpose. They will be split into galleries, research and conservation areas, educational and social spaces, storage, retail and a café.
“We worked very hard to integrate functions in this building,” Steward said. “We want to persuade visitors, when they come to the museum, to visit the whole thing.”
When the museum reopens after its $41.9 million makeover, it will be more than double the size of its old building, the Alumni Memorial Hall.
The University owns more than 18,000 art pieces, but was previously only able to show 3 percent of that collection at a time. UMMA’s off-site location at the juncture of South University and South Forest — what used to be the original Mitch’s Place bar — allowed for even more limited exhibitions. Now the added 53,000 square feet in the new building will allow UMMA to show 10 percent of its entire collection at a time. And viewing and appreciating this art need not be separate from learning about it.
What UMMA calls its open storage gallery is one way the museum seeks to combine art appreciation and education. The space that was once the Chinese gallery (renamed The Shirley Chang Gallery of Chinese Art in the new museum space) will now feature cabinets with floor-to-ceiling glass shelving. The construction of the gallery allows for a dense arrangement of 600 to 800 pieces — such as Chinese pots, American decorative arts objects, African pieces — that scholars and visitors can come in and study during the museum’s open hours without an appointment.
“It’s a way to create something in between the pristine display of art gallery spaces and dead storage space, a way of animating the collection,” Steward said. Call it experiential storage.
Around the corner from the open storage gallery is the old Japanese gallery space, which will become the Asian Art Conservation Laboratory’s new location. UMMA’s Asian Art Conservation Lab has been around for 25 years and is one of few in the country. Today, the lab does client work for other museums as well. Here, visitors can watch conservationists at work, from behind the glass doors.
“Sometimes, literally, it’s like watching paint dry, but the public is really fascinated,” Steward said. “It’s like alchemy; a magical mixture of art and science coming together.”
The conservation lab, open storage gallery and temporary contemporary gallery all contribute to UMMA’s greater emphasis on “connective tissues” — art spaces that provide the link between different cultures, between art and science, and between education and appreciation.
The building itself demonstrates an architectural blend of old and new. Alumni Memorial Hall, built between 1907 and 1910, reflects the Beaux-Arts revival style. While renovation of the old building stuck to historic preservation, where workers removed dropped ceilings and additions added in earlier 20th-century “attempts” at renovation, the building didn’t try to imitate the past.
“We need to build a building that was of our moment, historically, not looking just to the past,” Steward said. “Having said that, we also sought to build (an addition) that would keep company with the old, in terms of scale and materials.”
For most of the University’s undergraduate population, Alumni Memorial Hall has always been fenced in and under construction. Seniors may have vague memories of UMMA’s pop art or history of photography exhibitions or of the great black wing of Charles Ginnever’s “Daedalus” draped over the front lawn. (The sculpture has been moved to the South University side of the building, with “Orion” taking its original place.) UMMA closed in June 2006, giving them some time to pack up the collections before breaking ground in September of that year.
“We’ve really been pushing to get this open because another class graduates,” Steward said. “Two and a half years is more than half the average student’s (undergraduate career).”
The corridor that connects the old and new buildings, with tall glass lenses opening onto views of campus, seamlessly blends old and new, interior and exterior. The weathered sandstone of the old exterior, rosy from 101 years of oxidization, is paired with new sandstone from the same quarry, framing the passageway. A few steps further, you can see the Wisconsin limestone of the new addition. The clear glass windows allow for another degree of “outside-in.”
“Art isn’t just something you experience when you’re inside this building,” Steward said.
So many aspects of the renewed UMMA, in form and purpose, feed into the belief that art can be part of the everyday experience. While there’s sometimes the conception that art museums are a place of exclusivity, of high culture and pretension and a ban on cell-phones, it doesn’t have to be that way — and the new UMMA will work to encourage the idea that an art museum is for everyone and anyone.
UMMA’s best features
93,000 square feet total
53,000 square foot Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing
Designed with Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Oregon; the firm also oversaw the Seattle Art Museum expansion and the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum
UMMA’s collection includes more than 18,000 artworks.
Museum features a triple-height (three-story) Vertical Gallery, among other new and expanded gallery spaces.
Extended gallery hours and a public zone that will be open 16 hours a day.
And most importantly: Free admission.