Thursday, June 21, 2018

Renovation eye-opening at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg


Most of us have endured the daunting and intimidating task of choosing wall colors. And if the hue that looked so terrific on a little paint chip becomes a hideous blot when swiped onto a larger surface, well, it's no one's business but your own.

If you're Kent Lydecker and Jennifer Hardin, however, it could be many people's business. The walls for which they have made choices are most of the public spaces in the original building of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg where he is the director and she is the Hazel and William Hough chief curator. Sixteen of the 19 galleries, which mostly house the permanent collection, have been refurbished, and the most significant change that visitors will notice is color.

The walls are awash in it. Hardin says she started with about 150 colors from Benjamin Moore, then whittled them down with the help of staff and Jeff Daly, who was the chief designer at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 30 years and is now an international consultant on museum design. The finalists were painted on large pieces of mat board and viewed in the galleries with the art and at different times of the day.

Yellows, from deep sunflower to lemony soft, rich terra cotta, baroque red, blue and a pale gray-green unfold from gallery to gallery like a giant paint box sprung open with colors bearing names such as Audubon Russet, Nantucket Grey and Summerdale Gold. The change is eye-popping, especially as a backdrop for the art.

The $300,000 update is overdue. Most of the building, designed by architect John L. Volk in a Palladian manner, opened in 1965 and a lot of the finishes have not been changed. As was the custom, fabric covered the walls and it was fraying badly. Almost 50 years later, drywall and paint are preferred because paint can be changed to highlight changing art. The worn carpeting has also been replaced with new carpet or wood. Lighting seems brighter because it's positioned to illuminate the galleries in addition to the works in them. And natural light now pours into the rooms, too. After being camouflaged or covered over for decades, the arched windows on the front provide views inside and out with clear glass that is also hurricane strength. On the stage of the Marly Room, a large window that was hidden by a pocket door, and the surrounding paneling, is visible.

It's all, says Lydecker, in service to the art.

"It's a way of reimagining the collection," he says, "to create new juxtapositions outside the expected norm."

Like most museums, the galleries have been arranged chronologically and/or geographically. Many at MFA still are, but others are being stirred up a bit. A gallery that had been devoted to Greek and Roman antiquities has become the ceramics gallery with examples from ancient history to the present, which Lydecker calls an example of "thematizing."

"We can explore glazes and forms, connections," says Hardin. "We can compare pre-Columbian to abstract expressionism and see Wedgwood mimicking Greek pottery."

Another gallery that had housed decorative objects will be the place for new media including a beguiling kinetic sculpture by Peter Sarkisian.

Much of the art, even in traditional galleries, will be rearranged to encourage its being seen in a fresh way, and Hardin has done some editing, moving works to storage and bringing others out.

"The concept of a permanent collection is that it never changes," Lydecker says. "But it's constantly changing" so the art will be rotated.

In the Great Hall, the museum's main entrance before the Hazel Hough Wing opened in 2008, the changes are more subtle. Daly thought the original green silk damask that covered its walls was still in good condition so it stayed. But the faux marble floor was cracked and chipped so it has been replaced with real marble. Look up and you'll see a new ceiling that resembles a skylight.

The public reveal is Sept. 28 and it's free. MFA participates in the city's Arts Alive program with a free Museum Day citywide. Completion was timed to coincide with the annual event.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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