NEW HAVEN, Conn. — At last week’s reopening of the Yale Center for British Art, Matthew Hargraves, chief curator of art collections, called its Long Gallery “one of the great undiscovered spaces of the 20th century.” The stretch of gallery with its skylights framed by concrete angles was never really gone, but chopped up with dividing walls, it wasn’t the uninterrupted light-filled space imagined by architect Louis I. Kahn. After a decade of research into Kahn’s original plans for the Center, along with eight years of renovation, the Long Gallery is now a glowing portal of art, hung salon-style on its fabric-covered walls. Acting as both visible storage and space for student study, its marble busts mingle with Enlightenment landscapes and 19th-century bronze horses.
It’s just one part of the $33 million conservation of the Yale Center for British Art, but it demonstrates the project’s deft balance of restoring Kahn’s vision for the 1970s structure, while considering the needs of a contemporary museum. The Center closed to the public in January of last year. It then began its final phase of renovation, overseen by George Knight with Knight Architecture LLC, that concentrated on the public spaces. Much of the previous construction took place behind the scenes, although some of those invisible infrastructure updates will still make a difference to the visitor experience.
“No more risk of decapitation,” Daphne Kalomiris, an architect with Knight Architecture LLC, cheerfully explained of the new fire shutters that once snapped shut rather ominously on the big cut-out windows that overlook the building’s two courts. Other changes are more minor; Constance Clement, deputy director, noted that an obtrusive security camera that monitored activity from the middle of a wall near the main entrance is now replaced with friendlier, more discrete cameras in the corners.
Yet if you’ve visited the Center, which opened in 1977, or any of Kahn’s other museums, like the 1972 Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth or the 1953 Yale University Art Gallery across the street, the Center will reinforce that familiarity. Only the most subtle changes were made to the materials, refinishing the white oak that gleams on the borders of the gallery spaces, replacing the synthetic carpet with wool, and installing Chadwick sofas by Herman Miller. Orange-hued and modular, they resemble those from the 1970s, discarded because they were flammable, another visitor danger averted. They are, like all the replacements, “in the spirit of what was there originally,” as Clement put it.
Coinciding with the conserved galleries, the Center unveiled its new Britain in the World display of its permanent collection, with over 500 works following the progression of British art from the 16th century to present, much of it concentrated on acquisitions by the late Paul Mellon who amassed the initial holdings. The historic art (roughly Reformation to 19th century) has the most flattering installation in the fourth floor galleries. Every turn reveals a new vista, sometimes a window framing some spires from the stately university campus, sometimes looking inwards at the Library Court. There the central cylindrical concrete staircase tower bores through the building right down to the basement.
Museum favorites like its mascot, George Stubbs’s “Zebra” (1763), get places of prominence in their gilded frames, while there are unexpected standouts from paintings that sometimes veer into imperial pomp, such as William Dobson’s “Portrait of a Family, Probably that of Richard Streatfeild” (1645), showing a mother pointing at a child who was deceased, her red clothes standing out from the family’s black, while skulls haunt the background as a memento mori.
In the Entrance Court, the only space where unfiltered light shines, Barbara Hepworth’s “Biolith” (1948–49) guards one corner with its watchful limestone eye, and the only overt visual joke in the museum is played out between an 18th-century lead cast of “Samson Slaying a Philistine” and Gavin Turk’s bronze “Bin Bag #4” (2000–01). The slumped bag by the cast, taken from a 16th-century Giambologna marble, contrasts what appears to be a forgotten mound of trash, with one of those disappearing copies of a monumental sculpture which overtime gradually became disposable themselves.
It’s a moment of whimsy that catches you off guard right from the beginning, yet the rest of the installations are very sober, and returning to it again as you exit does generate some wistfulness for a bit more play with the diverse collections. This is, after all, a museum where two paintings of animals being mauled by lions (both care of George Stubbs) preside over the Library Court which hosts its formal receptions.
It’s hard for any one work to outshine the building, which from the outside looks quite stern with its matte steel and glass, and from the inside has this visible skeleton of concrete gridded with wood, the coolness and warmth of the material keeping it from feeling like a crushing weight. Yet it’s easy to overlook that, without the art on the walls, the J. M. W. Turners altering the hues of their ship scenes in the natural light, the John Constable cloud studies brightening and darkening with the clouds outside, the architecture would feel much heavier. Kahn knew how to make a sculptural showpiece — see his 1982 National Assembly Building of Bangladesh that hulks over moats like a modernist castle — but every choice in this building design was about the art.
Many modernist buildings are facing conservation issues, especially those that fall under the broad Brutalist umbrella with their looming concrete. It wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, but just in 2014, a Kahn-designed storefront in Philadelphia was demolished with little fanfare. And it’s certainly not cheap to return a 1970s modernist building to its prime; the eight-year conservation project for the Center far exceeded the initial cost of the building (by some estimates around $9.6 million). Yale has treated the architecture as something as essential to protect as any piece in their collections, and each sequence of its naturally illuminated space is as much a celebration of modernist architecture as it is of British art.
The Yale Center for British Art is now reopened at 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut.