New High Rising 

High Museum expansion marks a new era for Atlanta's premier art institution

As the world goes gargantuan -- from suburban mansions with airport atrium-size foyers to SUVs capable of carrying small armies -- the museum world is keeping pace with the popular trend for biggie-fication.

click to enlarge Alfredo Jaar's installation, "The Fire Next Time," inside the Anne Cox Chambers Wing. - HIGH MUSEUM OF ART / JONATHAN HILLYER

The debut in 1997 of Frank Gehry's sensuous, critically hailed design for the Guggenheim Museum's branch in Bilbao, Spain, in many ways began the lemming leap for bigger, more architecturally "name" museums and destination architecture. Every major American museum now seems in the throes of expansion fever and engaged in a high-culture version of keeping up with the Joneses.

The enticement to expand is powerful. The Museum of Modern Art's $425 million expansion, designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, opened a year ago, resulting in doubling the museum's annual attendance to more than 2 million, and Gehry's Bilbao museum created a tourist pipeline that helped revitalize that declining industrial city.

The architectural overhauls continue in fly-over country, too. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently completed a high-profile $92 million expansion, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will complete a whopping $500 million addition in 2010.

Signs indicate Atlanta's High Museum of Art is anticipating a similar boom in its attendance and art-world profile when the museum debuts the addition to its critically heralded 1983 Richard Meier-designed building on Peachtree Street on Nov. 12. The bigger question, though, is what administrators will do with all that shiny new space.

The $124 million, 177,000-square-foot expansion, which more than doubles the museum's size, is part of a total $164 million expansion of the Woodruff Arts Center complex. The expansion is designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Italian Renzo Piano, an architect highly regarded for designing the Menil Collection in Houston, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The High Museum is Piano's first expansion project in a growing list of museum expansions so extensive, Architectural Record has queried, "Is Renzo Piano America's default architect?" Piano's upcoming expansions include New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Piano's design for the High is viewed by some as the dawning of a new age in museum expansions, a low-key alternative to the flamboyant "starchitecture" of Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, the architect whom Piano replaced for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art project. From all appearances, Piano's High expansion is a consummate entry in the architect's body of work, incorporating his signature use of natural light, nautical metaphors and a subdued design that complements rather than competes with Meier's building.

The Piano addition to the High features three new buildings, including an administrative center and the Anne Cox Chambers Wing, which will house temporary exhibition galleries on the second level and contemporary art and photography galleries with work drawn from the permanent collection on the Skyway level.

But the expansion's crown jewel and the largest of the three new buildings is the Wieland Pavilion, named for home developer John Wieland and his wife, Sue, who donated $12 million to the expansion project. The four-level Wieland Pavilion will feature the new main entrance to the museum and, on the lower level, new galleries devoted to African art, photography, works on paper, and a study center where visitors can peruse works on paper in the museum's collection by appointment. Temporary exhibition space will be featured on the second floor, and contemporary art and photography from the museum's permanent collection will be on the top Skyway level, which connects with the Anne Cox Chambers Wing.

The Meier building, now called the Stent Family Wing, will house the bulk of the High's permanent collection on its five levels, as well as the Greene Family Learning Gallery for preschool- to elementary-age children. Here, budding master builders can hone their Richard Meier and Renzo Piano skills by constructing their own architectural designs using custom-created blocks. Baby conceptualists can riff on shapes inspired by Frank Stella or Claes Oldenburg and create their own objets d'art.

Creating another point of entry for the Woodruff Arts Center is Piano's design of the elegant new Table 1280 Restaurant and Tapas Lounge (see review page 79), helmed by chef Shaun Doty, whose minimalist tapas will vie for conceptual attention with artwork by Spencer Finch and Alyson Shotz commissioned specifically for the space.

High Director Michael Shapiro says he not only hopes to see museum attendance double to 500,000 a year with the expansion's debut, but he wants to broaden the way the public interacts with the museum within the booming Midtown grid, which may someday boast another significant player in the international world of architecture, Santiago Calatrava's $300 million design for the Atlanta Symphony Center. To that end, Piano's expansion project includes a 15,000-square-foot outdoor piazza that bridges the museum's main entrance and Table 1280, meant to encourage the kind of informal, serendipitous meetings, pedestrian traffic and intermingling of life and art that injects an urban European model into Atlanta's car-defined sprawl.

The expansion's transparency, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the First Presbyterian Church next door or the city's skyline on upper levels, promises to give the building a sense of connection to city life, enhanced by the interconnectivity of the piazza.

That sense of integration benefits from the care Piano exercised in stage-managing the theatrical space, choosing details from the Athena elms, Sweetbay magnolias and Kousa dogwoods that ornament the piazza, to the outdoor furniture and transparent walls of Table 1280, which integrate the indoors with outdoors and expand the museum beyond the gallery walls.

Many architectural leaders, including Richard Meier himself, are enthusiastic about Piano's design. Says William Weathersby Jr., a senior editor at Architectural Record, "I think it's spectacular. I think it really creates a sense of place more so than just a museum destination. I wouldn't even characterize this as an addition. It's kind of a whole new ball game for the museum, I think."

click to enlarge Renzo Piano's expansion adds 177,000 square feet to the High's space. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Renzo Piano's expansion adds 177,000 square feet to the High's space.

When it comes to museums, though, multimillion-dollar expansions by internationally acclaimed architects are ultimately just window dressing. What really matters is what's inside. The High's challenge as it enters this brave new world is to provide exhibitions and programming that not only attracts the masses, but challenges them and develops their appreciation for a wider variety of art forms and styles.

Architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, for one, questions whether expanded museums have the goods to fill the space.

"All of a sudden, you've got 20, 30, 40 percent more space than you had before," says the author of Towards a New Museum, a definitive book on museum expansions. "You've got to fill it. What happens? Do you start dragging out third-rate stuff that has always been in storage? Or do you start doing commercial-type stuff just to bring people in?"

The expansion will allow the High to exhibit more of its 11,000-piece permanent collection than ever before. But whether the collection, which leans heavily toward the decorative arts, is worthy of its striking new building remains to be seen.

Permanent collection aside, it has become something of a mantra in the local arts community to denounce the museum's near fixation with blockbuster exhibitions. Instead of risky, audience-challenging programming, the museum has been criticized for safe exhibitions of artists such as Picasso, Degas and Van Gogh that tend to draw big crowds as the revered masterworks pass briefly, like the pope, through town. Affirming the attendance potential of such exhibitions, the museum's top show thus far in terms of attendance was the 1999 exhibition Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums, followed by Picasso: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art.

Although numbers are a measure of a museum's success, administrators should not place too much emphasis on ticket sales, merchandise and events revenues, says Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and the Whitney Museum of American Art. "I see them as symptoms of success rather than measurements. What happens is that by building large institutions, there is a greater risk that organizations will drift toward providing programs that are solely intended to grow audience rather than thinking about programmatic quality."

Everyone seems to agree that the expansion presents a prime opportunity for the museum to redefine itself as a place large and inclusive enough to highlight both the classical work a large portion of its audience appears to crave, but also return to its track record under former Director Gudmund Vigtel's helm, from 1963 to 1991, of showing important contemporary work.

Louise Shaw, former executive director of Nexus Contemporary Art Center (now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) for 15 years, is, like many in town, keeping her fingers crossed.

"They're just so dependent on the turnstile that, across the country, we keep on seeing variations on the same theme -- in Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, etc., and representational art -- and I put the Andrew Wyeth and the Norman Rockwell [shows in that category]," says Shaw, referring to High shows past and present. "I see less and less risk being taken, certainly in the realm of contemporary art."

Shaw, among others, is especially vocal about the High's failure to acknowledge a new crop of artists with Atlanta ties whose work has gained prominence. Although the museum owns pieces by Kojo Griffin, Radcliffe Bailey and Kara Walker -- all of whom have exhibited nationally and internationally at prestigious institutions -- none have ever been exhibited at the High.

Especially promising for the possible dawning of a new age at the High is a fresh team of curators. This year, the museum has added new curators of photography, African-American art, modern and contemporary art, and a new head of museum interpretation. In 2004, a new curator of folk art was added to the staff. But it is imperative that the administration give these curators license to develop their domains with challenging new acquisitions and exhibitions.

"Curators should be encouraged to develop original exhibition ideas rather than serve as conduits for banal 'blockbusters' too boring to mention, like the Andrew Wyeth show that will open the new space," says James Meyer, a contemporary art scholar at Emory. "The collection will only improve if the curators buy outside the box, not only works by the usual blue-chip figures, and if museum supporters take a more active role in supporting these acquisitions. Hopefully, the generosity of people like the Wielands and the Golds [major donors to the museum's contemporary art collection] will inspire others."

In many ways, the High expansion comes at an ideal time. Midtown is booming into a corridor of art galleries and restaurants with a design-forward aesthetic that may astral-project Atlanta out of the dark ages of a stodgy, dead-after-5 downtown.

The pedestrian-friendly Technology Square development, Atlantic Station and the Peachtree Street retail corridor have turned Michael Shapiro's desire for a vibrant, walkable urban core at the Woodruff Arts Center into reality just blocks away.

And the High has shown encouraging signs in the countdown to Nov. 12 of redefining its image to go along with not only the changing shape of Midtown, but the needs faced by any museum in an economically competitive age of building new audiences.

click to enlarge The piazza provides a public gathering space between the High's new entrance and Table 1280. - HIGH MUSEUM OF ART / JONATHAN HILLYER

Garnering a larger African-American and younger audience was clearly a priority in the High's unusual but wildly successful Art, Beats & Lyrics event in April, which featured DJs, graffiti art and a large contingent of young, African-American viewers. And shows such as the spring 2006 exhibition of more than 80 Chuck Close paintings, co-organized by the contemporary art-savvy Walker Art Center and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, could be a sign that the High is interested in recapturing its tarnished contemporary-art street cred.

The museum appears interested in revving up its representation of regional artists, too. In addition to showing work by Atlanta-based photographers such as Angela West and Gretchen Hupfel, curator of photography Julian Cox expressed interest in a recent lecture in showing more conceptual work such as Taryn Simon's photo series "The Innocents," featuring men falsely accused of crimes, and Sze Tsung Leong's body of work on the rapid gentrification of China exhibited this fall at Kiang Gallery.

There are other signs of steps taken to include more local artists in upcoming exhibitions. Curator of African art Carol Thompson has organized a show for February 2007 that will travel to two other venues and feature at least two Atlanta-based artists, Radcliffe Bailey and Alejandro Aguilera.

Shapiro acknowledges criticism the High has received for its lack of contemporary programming and says, "We have been buying quite conscientiously in the area of modern and contemporary art in anticipation of this opening. I think that 30 percent of the works on view haven't been seen before. It's not only the new spaces, but in a sense it's a new collection."

Jeffrey Grove, the High's new curator of modern and contemporary art, agrees but takes it a step further. "It's becoming another institution," he says.

"There's a community that's super-hungry for having a modern and contemporary collection on view that they can visit and revisit and take people to," says Grove, who's planning a "Projects" series of exhibitions featuring emerging and local artists.

"Part of what is attractive about this position in this museum at this time is the new architecture and the fact that they have 12,500 [additional] square feet for modern and contemporary art that didn't exist before. It is moving from a very good museum to really having the potential of becoming a truly great museum and a national institution."

For now, the High Museum has two light-drenched, elegant new buildings devoted to an unprecedented amount of exhibition space and vast new rooms to fill. The impact of the addition is tangible. Less obvious is how much that physical change will be manifested in programming and attitude. What the administration will do with that space and how it envisions the museum's future remains to be seen.

OPENING NOV. 12

Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic

Through Feb. 26, 2006

Celebrate Architecture! Renzo Piano & Building Workshop

Through April 2, 2006

The Indian Gallery of Henry Inman

Through March 12, 2006

On the Side of Freedom: Jo Davidson and the Spanish Civil War

Through May 1, 2006

Highlights of Works on Paper Collection (Phase I)

Through March 26, 2006

Recent Gifts: Building Our Collection

Through May 7, 2006

Richard Meier & the High Museum of Art

Through April 16, 2006

High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-HIGH. www.high.org;. Free admission Sat.-Sun., Nov. 12-13. Regular admission: adults, $15; seniors and students, $12; children 6-17, $10; children under 6 and museum members, free. Sun., Tues.-Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

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