When the Princeton University Art Museum closed its physical galleries last spring in the midst of a growing pandemic, the length of the closure was contemplated in weeks and months. One year later, with vaccinations on the rise and cases declining, the length of the closure will now be measured in years — for reasons that are good news for the region.
Construction on the long-anticipated new art museum is scheduled to begin this summer, and the current museum will remain closed until it is largely demolished to make way for its replacement. The new museum is expected to open to visitors in 2024.
In a letter emailed to friends of the museum last month, museum director James Steward announced the closure and explained that virtual and in-person programs will continue through other camp
“I write today to confirm your suspicions that COVID-driven closure has now given way to construction-driven closure. The galleries you have known and loved will not reopen; unfortunately, saying farewell to them will also have to be a digital experience,” Steward wrote.
“Digital programming will continue — I don’t think we want to put that genie back in the bottle, at least not entirely — but so, as conditions allow, will other activities that put you back into contact with the thing itself, with great works of art. Art@Bainbridge will reopen, public programs will take place across our campus and around our region, and who knows, we might find unexpected spaces in which to make art a vital part of your everyday life, even during the years of construction.”
Images from the university’s collections will also continue to be shared in storefront windows in Palmer Square and at the Princeton Shopping Center, as seen on the cover of this issue.
Plans for the new museum were given the green light by the Princeton Planning Board at its March 4 meeting.
In his presentation to the planning board, museum director Steward explained that while a new museum has been decades in the making, the need for a new space has become especially acute in the past 10 years.
“Use of the museum’s collections in university teaching has grown in recent years by over 500 percent,” Steward said. “For over a decade we have been forced to limit the number of school visits we allow due to space constraints. Signature programs now regularly draw as many as 2,000 visitors in a single evening, and over the last decade attendance has more than doubled to over 200,000 visitors a year.”
In addition to human capacity concerns, he added, the current museum does not allow the university to make the best use of its diverse collection. He noted that of its 112,000 pieces, only 2 percent can be on view at any given moment. In addition, the “upstairs/downstairs” layout of the existing museum unintentionally gave a sense of hierarchy among the styles and cultures represented.
The new building, designed by British architect David Adjaye, will have most gallery spaces on a single level, giving equal prominence to each part of the collection and allowing diverse forms of art to exist in dialog with each other.
The new museum, noted university architect Ron McCoy, is being designed “from the outside in and the inside out.” He explained that the plans emphasize a sense of “porosity,” in which the museum is a seamless part of the campus around it, with entryways on all four sides.
In addition to the Marquand art library, which is the only part of the current structure that will be preserved, the new museum will consist of six gallery pavilions, each elevated above ground to allow campus walkways to pass through the building.
But Steward noted that the new museum is intended to be a space where visitors can not just visit but also can linger. Both educational spaces and visitor amenities are being allocated more than 75 percent more space. Exhibition spaces will also be expanded by an estimated 38 percent.
While design decisions have been made, the logistics of relocating a museum’s collections are complicated. As Steward noted in his letter to the community, “we are as busy behind the scenes as can be — emptying the galleries, building a temporary art conservation lab, preparing to move our offices, and so much more.”
For deeper insight into the transition process the museum offers a panel discussion, “How to Move a Museum: The Fine Art of Deinstallation,” on Thursday, April 8, at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom. Participants will include Chris Newth, associate director for collections and exhibitions, and Bart Devolder, chief conservator.
Newth joined the university in January, 2020, having served in various capacities at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 2002. He earned his bachelor’s in history from the University of Michigan and a master’s in art history from Boston University. At the time of his appointment Steward noted that the planned new museum would “afford the opportunity and necessity to adopt new modes of inquiry and of project development that will draw on Chris’s expertise in delivering visionary experiences.”
Devolder came to Princeton in the summer of 2018. He earned his master’s degree in painting conservation from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in Antwerp, Belgium, and worked in museums throughout Europe and later at the Kimbell Art Museum and Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
The event is free; registration for access to the Zoom presentation is available online.