Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum once sat at the edge of a parking lot, shielded from passing traffic by a row of trees.
Following an expansion project that closed the museum for a year and a half, it’s back open and much more visible.
A gleaming, 34-foot-tall facade made of pleated stainless steel now calls attention to the museum of modern and contemporary art. Behind that facade are new galleries that increase the museum’s exhibition space by 50%.
The expansion is part of $280 million in new construction that has remade the east end of the university’s campus. A campus common has replaced the parking lots, and the contents of the museum’s sculpture garden, which had been confined to a terrace to the side of the museum, are now spread more prominently within the new green space.
The new facade is a major eye-catcher.
“A 30-foot-tall stainless steel facade is not something people do a lot,” said Associate Vice Chancellor James Kolker, the university architect. “This was our one chance to do something iconic, with a really innovative use of materials. It’s really blurring the line between art and architecture, in a way.”
It guards a new entrance lobby, which for the first time gives museum staff space to hold programming like artist talks and panel discussions right by the artwork. In the past, such events had to be held off-site.
The expansion totals 5,600 square feet and includes two new galleries dedicated to the permanent collection, which are already open. Galleries dedicated to works on paper and video are due to open in February. The existing galleries dedicated to temporary exhibitions are unchanged.
While the museum was closed to the public, Director and Chief Curator Sabine Eckmann and her staff rethought the presentation of the museum’s collection. Before, highlights from the collection were arranged in thematic clusters. Now they are presented chronologically. Eckmann said the area for contemporary art will change regularly.
“We were using also the time of the closure to think strategically about our future and what our vision for the future will be,” Eckmann said. “We’re also thinking about: What does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century?”
In part, the museum will look for voices that are underrepresented in the Kemper’s collection, which is heavy on white artists from Europe and the U.S.
“We are trying to also build more of these kinds of international or transnational dialogues between artworks,” she said. “In the future we also hope to add more voices from Latin America, from Asian, from Africa, to show a more global narrative of modern and contemporary art.”
That is reflected in the new entrance lobby, where a newly commissioned sculpture of colored glass by Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno hangs from above. The first temporary exhibition at the new Kemper is a major show by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist now living in exile in the U.K.
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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