The students have packed up and left for the summer, and pretty soon Harvard's art museums will go on an extended hiatus, as well.
After many years and many false starts, Harvard is finally launching a major expansion of its art museums. In the process, what have been three separate institutions — the Fogg Art Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum — will be consolidated under one roof, and one name: the Harvard Art Museum.
The Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger will close on June 30, in order for the curators to begin packing up the art. Construction is expected to begin in the fall of 2009 and to be completed in 2013. Until then, a selection of the three museums' collections will be on display in the Sackler, which is located a block away from the other two.
The expansion will preserve the Fogg's landmarked 1927 building, at 32 Quincy St. Previous additions to the building — including Werner Otto Hall, which was built in 1991 to house the Fine Arts Library and the Busch-Reisinger — will be torn down and replaced with a new addition, designed by Renzo Piano. The addition will flow seamlessly into the 1927 building. Perched on top of both will be a glassy penthouse, which will contain three object study centers and a new home for the Straus Center for Conservation. The 1927 building will also be restored, and its systems updated.
The primary purpose of the expansion is to make the collections more accessible, the director of the Harvard Art Museum, Thomas Lentz, said in an interview. Right now, only 1% of the museums' collections are on display. The expansion will double that amount, while the study centers will offer students, researchers, and members of the public an opportunity to view any work in the collection upon request.
While many major museums have such facilities, Mr. Lentz said that Harvard's new study centers will be unusual in offering access to all objects in the collection, not just works on paper, and in being given such a prime location within the building.
"In terms of prominence and centrality, we're putting the study centers on an equal level with the exhibition galleries," Mr. Lentz said.
By putting the three collections in one building, the expansion is also intended to encourage interdisciplinary research by the museum's curators and Harvard faculty and students. The Busch-Reisinger emphasizes Central and Northern European, and particularly German, art; the Sackler emphasizes ancient, Asian, Islamic, and Indian art, and the Fogg emphasizes Western art, from the medieval period to the present.
Beyond that, the ultimate goal is to make the museum play a bigger role within the life of the university and of undergraduate education, in particular. "Especially at the beginning of the 21st century, where the visual is so privileged, and seems to be the primary vehicle through which people take in information, we're going to have to put in place different mechanisms to better inform students and faculty about the resources we have," Mr. Lentz said.
Mr. Piano was first hired to design a new building for Harvard's art museums in the late 1990s. At that point, the plan was to build a contemporary art museum on a site along the Charles River, about 15 minutes from the other museums. After that idea was scuttled by neighborhood opposition, the next was to build a new museum, with room for storage and conservation, as part of Harvard's new campus in Allston. That plan also drew local opposition, and for now, it has been put on hold in favor of renovating the museums in Harvard Square.
"We're still hoping to build another facility for modern and contemporary art," Mr. Lentz said. "Modern and contemporary art is still a structural gap that we have here in terms of our programming and collection; for us not to have an increased capacity [in that area] is a threat not only to us as an art museum but to Harvard as a teaching institution. There's a huge demand for that material."
Harvard has long had an ambivalent relationship to the arts, confining them either to the realm of scholarship or to extracurricular practice. Harvard doesn't, for example, have a theater major, as Yale does. It has a visual arts major, but it is called "Visual and Environmental Studies," to suggest that the proper course of study includes a strong theoretical and critical component.
"When I arrived [in 2003], the curators were very fond of talking about the alphanumeric bias embedded in academia," Mr. Lentz said. "If it's not a text or a chain of numbers, people don't know how to deal with it."
The new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, has indicated a desire to challenge this ambivalence and integrate art more into the university's academic life. Last fall, she appointed a task force, led by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, to look into the role of the arts at Harvard.
As Ms. Faust noted in announcing the appointment of the task force, many of Harvard's "peer institutions" have expanded their arts programming and facilities in recent years. Yale, in particular, is in the midst of a large-scale expansion of its arts facilities, which includes the already completed renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery, designed by Louis Kahn; the currently underway restoration of the Art & Architecture building (now called the Rudolph Building, after its architect Paul Rudolph), and the addition of a new building designed by Charles Gwathmey (who is also in charge of the restoration of the Rudolph Building), intended to house the art history department.
It will be some years before Harvard can compete with Yale's strength in the arts. The refined master plan for the Allston campus, which is due in December, will likely include an arts and cultural center, with both an art museum and performing arts facilities. In 2013, the new Piano art museum will open on Quincy Street. (The Sackler, down the block on the corner of Quincy and Broadway, will close at that point. The Fine Arts Library, which is moving now to a temporary location, may ultimately relocate in that building.)
Mr. Lentz declined to say what the budget for the expansion would be. He said that Harvard would be a "generous donor" to the project, but that the museum will also have to do its own significant fund-raising. (The Harvard Art Museum does not have a board of trustees, though it does have a "visiting committee," which includes collectors such as Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Emily Rauh Pulitzer, as well as institutional leaders such as the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, James Wood, and the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Malcolm Rogers.)
"We're pleased with our success [so far] in terms of fund-raising, but we have a steep hill to climb," Mr. Lentz said. "We hope that with our mission, we can make a good argument for why people should support what we're doing here."