Gone soon will be the drab linen wall coverings and stained carpets that muted the beauty of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. A $300,000 facelift is under way at the institution on Beach Drive NE, in preparation for its 50th anniversary in 2015, and continues through summer.
"I feel passionate about this collection," said director Kent Lydecker. "It should be shown in an environment that is consistent with it and the new Hough Wing."
The renovation will necessitate the staggered closings of some galleries and, at some point, probably most of the permanent collections galleries.
The museum opened in 1965. Founded by Margaret Acheson Stuart, it's distinguished by its stately neoclassical architecture and a sweeping Palladian facade. An auditorium and sculpture garden were added in 1974, and a second floor was built onto the north portion of the building in 1989. The Hazel Hough Wing opened in 2008, extending the museum's footprint north with 33,000 square feet, which almost doubled its size. Its galleries are used for special exhibitions and freed-up space in the original galleries to show more of the permanent collection.
Many of those galleries still have the fabric-covered walls that have been there for decades, along with worn carpeting and acoustical ceiling tiles. The fabric will be stripped, and drywall will be installed and painted. New carpeting in some galleries and wood flooring in others will follow.
"For years I just tried to ignore the way it looked," said Jennifer Hardin, the museum's Hazel and William Hough chief curator. "But it got harder and harder."
All five galleries in the southern part of the building were drywalled and painted in 2004 and lighting and tile ceilings were updated, so they need the least work, new paint colors and wood or carpeted floors.
The north galleries, the Great Hall which separates them from the south galleries, and the Marly Room will get more extensive treatment.
The interior walls in the largest galleries on each side of the hall will be reconfigured to allow for better sight lines and flow.
The renovation is benefitting from star power in the arts world. Jeff Daly, one of the country's most respected experts in museum design, is the project's design adviser. He was the chief exhibition designer and senior design adviser to the director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for more than 28 years and has led consultations and projects for other major institutions. Lydecker, who was an associate director at the Met, had worked with Daly and asked him to help.
"He came here for one day and was a volcano of ideas," Lydecker said.
He also called on colleagues at the National Gallery of Art for suggestions.
"They all saw things we had lost sight of," he said, "the windows, the proportions of the rooms, tweaks and details."
The Great Hall was a particular focus for everyone. It was once the grand, double-height entrance to the museum, decorated with crystal chandeliers, its walls covered in damask and green marble. To the surprise of the museum staff, Daly said the fabric was fine and should remain. The faux marble floor, however, with multiple pits and cracks, had to go. A new marble floor will replace it.
The Marly Room, which was the only space for large meetings, social events and museum programs before the Hough Wing was built, will get its share of TLC, too. The old pink fabric on the walls (fabric on museum walls was once de rigueur) will get the drywall treatment and the wood wainscoting will have fresh paint.
One of the most exciting changes, though, will be a return to the past. For decades, the large windows on the museum's facade either were obscured with light-blocking scrims or covered up altogether. All will be fitted with new glass and provide views from the street into the museum.
The big window surprise is the forgotten one behind the stage in the Marly Room, on the west side of the building. It looks like a functioning window from the outside but has been hidden for decades by a screen and pocket door inside. Many staff members didn't know it existed. Hardin said restoring it is not in the current funding and will have to wait.
The upgrade is being funded by a grant from the state, museum funds and private donations. It's part of a larger master plan, Lydecker said, that will continue as money becomes available.
The schedule is still a bit loose but Hardin anticipates that most of the original building will be closed during July, which is a typically slow month. Then, as art is reinstalled, the galleries will reopen. Everything should be completed by late August or early September.
"There will always be things to see here," Lydecker said. "The Hough Wing will be open throughout."
In a nod to any disruption visitors might feel, admission has been lowered to $10 for adults from $17 through Sept. 30.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected]