If we must commingle art and commerce, 2 museums show us the way

The James A. Michener Art Museum's new pavilion gives those inside an expansive view of the museum's sculpture garden and its reflecting pools. MICHAEL MORAN / Otto
The James A. Michener Art Museum's new pavilion gives those inside an expansive view of the museum's sculpture garden and its reflecting pools. MICHAEL MORAN / Otto
Posted: June 30, 2012

Passing the Barnes Foundation's sprawling new parking lot one recent afternoon, I was surprised to see half the spaces were empty. By evening, however, the joint was jumping, the lot was full, and many female visitors were wearing skyscraper heels, rather than the sensible flats of the serious museumgoer. That's when it hit me that the real motive for cramming the lot onto the Barnes' tiny site was to help the gallery promote itself as a party venue.

The Barnes is not alone in chasing after the lucrative events business. Public funding has been drying up since the late ‘80s and now barely covers a quarter of the average museum's operating budget, the American Association of Museums says. To replace the lost government aid, museums everywhere are turning to more overtly commercial, moneymaking ventures. These days, people are just as likely to visit an art museum for a wedding reception as for the treasures on the walls.

The changing economics are inevitably showing up in the design choices that museums make, with the Barnes' parking lot being Exhibit A. We've gotten to the point where some museums are starting to feel like giant banquet halls that happen to have exhibition space attached to them. So it's heartening to see two small museums in Doylestown and Allentown accommodate these income generators with finesse. If we must commingle art and commerce, they show us the way to do it.

Both places are home to regional art museums with strong, distinctive collections: Doylestown's James A. Michener Art Museum is best known for showcasing the works of Pennsylvania's New Hope colony, while the Allentown Art Museum came into its own in the early ‘60s when it inherited a cache of Renaissance masters.

Yet, because they are far from the philanthropic honeypots, they have to work extra hard to pay the bills. Their new additions, both designed by prominent Philadelphia architectural firms, should not only help them with the bottom line, but also raise their visibility with a broader audience. The hope is that people who first encounter the museums as party guests will return as art patrons.

The Michener's former director, Bruce Katsiff, who ended his two-decade tenure last week, makes no bones about calling the museum's new Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion a party room. But what a stunning party room it is.

Designed by Kieran Timberlake, the one-room addition is a crisp glass box in the tradition of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House outside Chicago and Peter Bohlin's Apple cube in Manhattan. Such glass boxes have become practically ubiquitous, and can seem pretty ho-hum. But Kieran Timberlake's Putnam pavilion, with its careful siting, classical Golden Section proportions, and gorgeous construction details, reminds us that a little glass building can still be a work of magic.

The museum's master plan, by Philadelphia's Ewing Cole, originally envisioned the party room as an extension of the lobby. Kieran Timberlake had a better idea. It moved the $5 million pavilion to the center of the Michener's large sculpture garden. That accomplished two things: It divided the overly long garden into two tightly defined outdoor rooms on either side of the pavilion, and it gave partygoers expansive views of the sculpture, reflecting pools, and manicured grounds, designed by the landscape architects at Olin.

Except, that is, from the room's north side. There, the architects intentionally, and unexpectedly, jam the pavilion against the high, rugged stone wall that once enclosed a 19th-century prison, leaving only a narrow passage connecting the two halves of the sculpture garden. The placement sets up a neat dialogue — between glass and stone, between entertainment and punishment. The juxtaposition means that revelers will be dancing only a few feet from a section of the wall where prisoners carved their names.

Placing the pavilion so close to the stone wall also suggests a contrast between lightness and weight. The pavilion's glass panels are unusually tall — more than 23 feet — yet they stand upright with seemingly no visible means of support — no metal frames, no supporting columns, no fins. Rather, the glass panels are part of a self-supporting curtain wall, the largest so far in North America.

Kieran Timberlake, assisted by CVM Engineers, pulled off this trick by using a new German glass technology. The panels are really several layers of glass that have been laminated together to a thickness of seven inches and then embedded in a narrow, stainless-steel trough 10 inches below grade. The panels are connected by a thin, barely noticeable silicon joint, instead of the usual metal frame. Inside, dark steel columns hold up the roof.

While the Michener project is a relatively modest one for Kieran Timberlake, which is currently designing a new U.S. embassy in London, it gave the architects a chance to experiment. They plan to use the same glass product at the pavilions now being built at Philadelphia's City Hall for the Dilworth Plaza renovation. The impression at the Michener is a building of unbearable lightness, as if it were about to levitate.

It had better stay grounded because, Katsiff says, the museum has already booked 25 weddings so far this year, along with its own lecture and music series, in the party room, which seats 180 people at tables. The pavilion's ambitious architecture also seems to have emboldened the museum in other ways. It just opened a new show featuring rarely seen works from Florence's Uffizi Gallery, the first international show staged at the Doylestown museum.

The Allentown addition, by VSBA, the successor to Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, is really an expanded lobby, rather than a party room, but it has been designed to give the museum a flexible public space and, more importantly, a stronger public presence on Fifth Street, in the city's downtown.

The art museum's entire collection had been housed in a neoclassical church until the 1970s, when a low-slung wing was attached. While the structure provided more space, the solid facade didn't do much to entice people inside. So, as part of the $16 million renovation of the ‘70s wing, VSBA replaced the facade to open up the museum to the city.

The transformation is dramatic. Huge windows march down Fifth Street, allowing clear views into the museum lobby, cafe, and bookstore. Chairs and tables can be moved around for parties, which will be visible from Allentown's Art Park, located across the street. Deeper inside the museum, the galleries look cleaner and richer, but still suffer from the low ‘70s-era ceilings.

On the Fifth Street facade, the familiar VSBA style is immediately recognizable, and will remind many of their recent dorm project for Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. Unlike Kieran Timberlake, which wanted its glass to disappear, VSBA calls attention to its Allentown windows by using overscale mullions to divide the sections. Flattened, stylized columns, faced in aluminum panels, break down the scale, and connect the new facade to the columned church. After years of begging clients to allow them to jazz up their buildings with neon, VSBA finally persuaded the art museum to go along and frame the columns with lights. It helps make the museum feel like a fun place.

The long facade terminates in a glass prow that will ultimately overlook a sculpture garden, if the museum can raise an additional $1 million. For now, the prow creates a cozy cafe corner where museum visitors, office workers, and employees of the nearby Lehigh County Courthouse can enjoy lunch.

Such spaces may not be the main reason such museums exist, but if it helps get people in the door, that's a good reason to celebrate.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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