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For Two Museums, The Byzantine Era Continues

Commentary By DENNIS BARONE

February 10, 2008

Misery loves company. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum Of Art has struggled for years to reconcile its jumbled floor plan. It does not labor alone. The Art Institute of Chicago, like the Wadsworth, has a disparate, disjointed conglomerate of buildings and no vision to rectify this confusion.

Indeed, the larger and more famous institution on Lake Michigan has taken architectural hodgepodge far beyond that of the nation's oldest public art museum. If in its early years the Art Institute found inspiration in its older Eastern cousin, then the Wadsworth in the present might find some lessons in the sprawling behemoth of Michigan Avenue.

Blockbuster exhibits do attract visitors. When I visited the Art Institute recently I waited in an outdoor line in a typical strong, cold wind howling off the lake to see the "Jasper Johns: Gray" exhibit. Once I got in, and waited in another long line to check my bulky winter coat et al, I faced an arduous hike to see the Jasper Johns show. Back and forth and still back I walked, wondering, am I yet beneath the frozen lake? Then I came to an intersection. Descend the narrow staircase to a small, drab cafe for meager but revitalizing refreshment or ascend the grand double stairs to the exhibit? The exhibit was mobbed; folks who'd made it this far would not be denied.

Oddly, all buildings of the Art Institute connect only on the ground floor. Nowhere is there a second floor connection. Furthermore, this labyrinth and its apparently planned disconnection will soon be amplified when yet another new wing (better described as a separate building) opens. While Renzo Piano's modern art building promises to be quite stunning from the plans, pictures and construction in progress, I can't see how it might smooth out the layout of or visually connect with its neighbors.

But it isn't supposed to. The Art Institute has completely given up on any attempt at unity. This new wing scheduled to open in 2009 has been oriented to Millennium Park, a city park of contemporary sculpture that can be climbed on or in which one can see a funny reflection of oneself. There has been no attempt to relate the new wing/building to the museum's other buildings.

The Art Institute, founded in 1879, opened at its present site in 1893 and had additions in 1898, 1901, 1924, 1925, 1955, 1962 (this one attempted to "restore symmetry to the complex"), 1977 and 1985-87 (another attempt to renew "the space's symmetry"). The Wadsworth is a five-building complex. The cream-colored South Glastonbury granite castle opened in 1844. Additions followed in 1893 (later demolished), 1906-07, 1908-10, 1934 and 1969.

I returned to Hartford and to the Wadsworth with the belief that the ambitious Van Berkel & Bos (UN Studio) plan of 2000 to unify the museum embodied real genius. Too bad Hartford can't afford it and has abandoned it. The Dutch architects saw "a maze of unconnected, small rooms" which they had hoped to replace with "a fluid circulation system," and to attain the latter their plan called for the elimination of the 1969 addition. It made such wonderful sense, unlike the crazy idea to annex the old Hartford Times building.

Once wealthy individuals put their names on museum buildings and these individuals had egos and so their buildings had to be distinct and distinctive. Here in Hartford the names are Colt, Morgan, Avery and Goodwin. This is what gave us hodgepodge museum architecture. Now corporate logos have replaced individual family names. Too bad no corporation in either Chicago or Hartford can see the glory in unity.

Dennis Barone is director of American Studies at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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