COLUMBUS, Ohio — Expanding a museum is a lengthy and costly process, one which requires a great deal of buy-in from the staff, patrons, board, and surrounding community. It’s easy to assume that longstanding institutions are self-sufficient, and to see their occasional expansions as a natural part of their growth, but in reality, it is a Herculean effort, with many considerations and potential risks — and, of course, a lot of gratification, delayed though it may be. In the case of the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA), the opening of a new two-story wing — which includes an 11,000-square-foot permanent gallery, a lower-level special exhibition space, a video gallery, and event facilities, among other amenities — represents the endgame of a 10-year process that was guided through every stage by a deeply considered set of overarching values.
According to Executive Director Nannette Maciejunes, those values boil down to sustainability, competitiveness, and enhanced public value. Features of the new wing reflect these priorities in myriad ways, including behind-the-scenes considerations such as the incorporation of an enclosed loading dock, which has become an industry standard. But mostly they focus on widening the scope of possibility for CMA. “Building a building was not the goal of the campaign,” says Maciejunes — a sentiment echoed by lead architect Michael Bongiorno, from the firm DesignGroup. In his introductory remarks at the press preview, Bongiorno declared, “It feels like Columbus is in a period of Renaissance,” and went on to outline the process of close communication with CMA in reimaging the role of the art museum in contemporary society.
A number of the new wing’s features embody CMA’s vision for, in Borgiorno’s words, “a meeting point between art, the public, and the physical city” — including a soaring atrium entryway and gathering space that Maciejunes predicts “will be a new hub around which everything circulates in the building”; cinematic facades that offer tantalizing views into the second-floor galleries from the streets that bookend the museum; and pre-patinated bronze cladding that nods to the weathered copper of the original 1931 building, which housed CMA’s collection until it was relegated to administrative space.
Inside, there are features and surprises for newcomers and CMA loyalists alike, including special galleries custom-made for some of the institution’s touchstone works. These include Mel Chin’s “Spirit” (1992) — an examination of the unsteady relationship between agriculture, industry, and nature in America, embodied by a massive shipping barrel balanced on a rope made of native grasses — and the commission “Nocturne Navigator” (1998) by Alison Saar, a piece that commemorates the spirit of northern-bound former slaves with a figure wearing a voluminous skirt, through which points of light emulate the stars that provided the means of navigation towards freedom.
“There were pieces that were beloved that needed to come down for awhile. ‘Spirit’ has not been up in 10 years. ‘Nocturne Navigator’ has been down a long time,” says Maciejunes. “I always talk about how the sweet spot for us is really the return visitor. Our audience is two things: it’s regional tourism, primarily people who have come here for different reasons, and then people who live within about a two-hour driving distance. So, you’ve got to get those people to be attached and keep coming back again, and those are the people who become attached to objects in the collection — they ask you where they are and why they’re not up. When it came to deciding what pieces the community would want to see pretty much available in a permanent way, ‘Spirit’ became one of those touchstones.”
The dedicated space is a 1,400-square-foot gallery with custom walls that bow inwards, creating the immersive and somewhat oppressive environment that Chin had specified as the ideal conditions for showing the piece. The gallery is low-lit and hushed as a catacomb, adding to the gravitas of the massive barrel balanced atop a fibrous tightrope. The media preview was not, perhaps, the best moment to reflect quietly on the work, but the design of the space will clearly facilitate intimate contemplation. Still, the 10-year process of creating the new wing has clearly taught Maciejunes to always consider the long-term: the artist-spec walls were built over permanent ons, to enable future changes to the space. “I think one of the themes that we kept returning to in this building was the flexibility that generations of curators and directors, and the community, could have,” she says. “I love that there are no load-bearing walls [within the galleries], because that means you can completely reconfigure the space.”
Alongside these longer-term installations, the new wing is hosting two inaugural temporary exhibitions. Imperfections by Chance: Paul Feely Retrospective (1954–1966) spans galleries on both floors and overlooks the site of a permanent Feely sculpture on CMA’s grounds, “Karnak,” a work that previously existed only in maquette form (also on display) and has now been commissioned by CMA at the intended scale of 250 inches tall. Feely’s drawn and dimensional works are geometric but emotional — though the shapes are obvious, they’re not rendered with clinical precision. Delicate washes of primary colors flirt with each other, right up to discrete hardline edges that keep them from touching. These pieces are so inherently concerned with space, they make a perfect union with an opening where the space itself is on display.
In the new special exhibition gallery, Keeping Pace: Eva Glimcher and Pace/Columbus resuscitates the little-known heyday of Pace Gallery in Columbus, featuring an eye-popping array of exhibition posters that reveal Columbus as an unlikely port of circulation for some of the most cutting-edge contemporary artists of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as works by six artists who showed there: Jim Dine, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson, Lucas Samaras, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. CMA Curator of Contemporary Art Tyler Cann confessed to having a soft spot for the Samaras works that will be on display, in particular the installation of his 1966–2007 piece “Doorway.”
“Many people don’t know that Pace was ever in Columbus. At the same time, I’ve met several people in Columbus who never imagined that Pace was ever anywhere else,” says Cann. “As we look forward to a new program with the Columbus Museum’s expansion, it’s also timely to reacquaint our audience with the history of contemporary art in the city. Pace/Columbus really did change some people’s sense of who they were and where they lived, and it’s a testament to the role that cultural institutions, including commercial ones, can play.”
Whether CMA’s new wing can live up to the heady expectations surrounding it has yet to be seen, of course. But everyone on hand for the media tour — from the architect to the docents, from the education center crew to the staff of the new café — radiated a sense of pride and investment in the accomplishment. This cultural institution has made every effort to attend to the details that foster a welcoming and engaging environment, and one hopes that citizens of Columbus and beyond will avail themselves of CMA as a dynamic destination.
Correction: This article originally misstated the title of Lucas Samaras’s artwork “Doorway.” It has been fixed.