If there's one thing museums have, it's stuff, and lots of it. So much, in fact, that most rarely sees the light of day. Paintings, furniture, and sculpture are plucked from storage areas and displayed to tell a curator's story or trace a theme. But when the show is over, they are sent back to their shelves to languish again, sometimes for decades.
The Brooklyn Museum keeps tucked away its collection of Spanish colonial art, including an 18th-century ivory statue of the Virgin Mary; its sampling of late 19th-century Hunzinger chairs, which haven't been exhibited since the mid-1990s; and its pewter collection, which is of scholarly importance, if perhaps too frumpy for the spotlight. And there are paintings, racks and racks of them: Sargents, O'Keeffes, Hassams, Hartleys, and more, dating from the modern era back to the colonial period.
On Friday, the museum will unveil these neglected works and some 1,500 others to the public when its opens the Luce Center for American Art: Visible Storage/Study Center. The facility, designed by Matthew Yokobosky, displays paintings and decorative arts objects spanning more than three centuries.
The high-ceilinged, 5,000-squarefoot space is lit from above by skylights, which are covered by translucent panels. There is some auxiliary lighting, but for conservation reasons the space is kept a little dim. Curators have selected some objects (such as a strange, turn-of-the-20th-century bed that folds out of a piano), but for the most part they are neatly stacked into tall, glass-and-aluminum cases.
On shelves, multiple examples of the same type of object tend to be placed close together for reasons of comparison. Some objects on higher shelves are hard to see, like certain examples in the museum's chair collection, and some smaller sculptures. And on one of four walls crammed with paintings, hanging at knee level, there is a serene Cassatt, which depicts a woman in a bright orange chemise holding a naked baby before a mirror. You can say that it's still hidden - or that it's waiting to be discovered.
"It's not like what we have in storage is second-class, said Decorative Arts Department Chairman Kevin Stayton. "The material we have is first-class, wonderful material that could be in the galleries, but for space limitations."
The Brooklyn is the latest to avail itself of funding from the Henry Luce Foundation to create a space that opens up museum storage to the public, following in the footsteps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New-York Historical Society. The Smithsonian is also planning to open its own Luce-funded facility in 2006.
The new facility doesn't even begin to show everything the Brooklyn has in storage. The Luce Foundation bankrolls such projects as part of its efforts to create more visibility for American art; the facilities it funds focus primarily on American art. The Luce Foundation has never specifically set out to fund such open-storage centers, but putting more items from important collections out for public view fits well with their funding mission, according to the foundation's program director for the arts, Ellen Holtzman.
"How they do it and what they want to do, that all comes from the institution," Ms. Holtzman said.
Of the three New York Luce-funded facilities, the Brooklyn Museum's is the smallest. The Metropolitan's Henry R. Luce Center for American Art displays more than 10,000 objects and paintings, and it also has an open storage facility for its Egyptian art. About half of New-York Historical Society's 45,000 objects are housed at its Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.
The Metropolitan's facility, which opened in 1988, was one of the first visible storage centers, and the first one funded by the Luce Center. Its manager, Carrie Barratt, said that what made it possible at that time was the development of collections-management databases, as well as a new type of glass case that provided better conditions for long-term display. The museum recently obtained another grant from the Luce Foundation to make additional improvements.
Brooklyn's Luce Center differs from the Met's mostly in that it offers much more in the way of interpretive labeling and interactive displays. The New-York Historical Society's facility, opened in 2000, provides similar information, but it is on a floor by itself, not contiguous with other exhibit spaces. Which raises the question: Do many more people see its objects than would if they were in the warehouse?
New-York Historical doesn't have statistics for attendance at its Luce Center, but school groups regularly attend programs that incorporate those collections, spokesman Jake Lynn said. Likewise, the Metropoli tan hasn't tracked the numbers, according to Ms. Barratt, but a steady stream of students and researchers passes through. "It's mainly members of the general public who just wander in," she said.
The Brooklyn Museum got $10 million from the Luce Foundation for both its open storage facility and the reinstallation of its Americas collection, opened in 2001. The museums would not disclose the actual costs of the project, but noted that it was budgeted separate from the rest of the museum's recent renovation. It took curators, conservators, designers, and educators two years to complete the project.
Curator of American Art and Luce Center Project Leader, Linda Ferber, noted that, even when the public did get a chance to see these objects previously, it was in the context of a curated show. But in exhibits, curators take artifacts and "combine and recombine them in many ways," she said, making them the tools of their own ideas. Outside the open storage area, public galleries show examples from the permanent collection arranged mainly by theme and chronology. In open storage, where objects are simply grouped by medium and form," a different type of story is being told."
Ms. Ferber said a highlight of the project was the rediscovery of an 1860s marble relief of the Prophet Zephaniah by artist Margaret Foley, which no one had seen for at least the 34 years she has worked at the museum. Foley was one of the few high-profile American female expatriate sculptors of her time, and Ms. Ferber was interested to see the work. "Over the years I was always coming across it in the catalog records," she said. "It became a mystery." Then, one day when one of the old storage rooms in the basement was being cleared out, someone saw what looked like an old slab of marble leaning against a back wall. And when they turned it around - there was Zephaniah.
Luce Center for American Art: Visible Storage/Study Center will open to the public January 14 (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 718-638-5000).