♦ The Question of Architecture

It is the architecture that puts the rest of the institution in context and serves as the primary method by which one can “construct meaning” from a university art museum.

-Louisiana & Maine

University art museums in Virginia are traditionally thought of as trustworthy and informative institutions that assist in the expansion of art and art education solely within the college setting. However, in many instances the effects of these institutions extend further than the academic cosmos and therefore aid in influencing surrounding communities. Museums accomplish this through a variety of ways. They develop educational campaigns and programs, create administrative positions, organize specific exhibitions and encourage participation from a wide demographic. All of these contributions enhance the influence that these institutions have. However, there is one trait that each university art museum has that often goes overlooked, its architecture, and, as it turns out, architecture is extremely important. It is the first thing that is noticed by visitors and thus is responsible for establishing a certain expectation as to the institutions’ intentions and overall purpose. After realizing this idea, it becomes necessary to investigate architecture further and note exactly how its influence differs from institution to institution in Virginia.

            Virginia Commonwealth University, located in Richmond, Virginia is dedicated to its various fine arts programs. It comes as no surprise that the gallery located on campus would be a very significant one. The Anderson Gallery is positioned in the middle of the Monroe Park Campus and is reasonably accessible to anyone in the area.  This feature in particular is extremely important to university museums. If a building is not located in an area that is attractive and inviting, nobody will ever want to visit. The fact that the Anderson Galley is located in Richmond makes its relationship with urban design an extremely significant point.

Architect and writer Aldo Rossi emphasizes the relationship a building shares with its surroundings by using the term “Genus Loci.”1 Essentially, this is an idea shared by people in ancient civilizations like Rome. They were convinced that this term reflected the ideal place a structure should be located based on a religious notion. However, Rossi is more accurately discussing this term in the context of “urban artifacts.”2  Urban Artifacts can be any number of things including monuments and buildings. In this instance, the term is being used to describe the Anderson Gallery. This is not to say that the gallery’s current location is a product of religious persuasion, but rather an observation that its strategic placement is of significant influence to both the number and frequency of its constituents.

From an external architectural standpoint, the Anderson Gallery is no different in style than its surrounding counterparts. However, since the time of its initial construction it has undergone a multitude of renovations both interior and exterior that have caused the building to take a significant departure from its original design. This is mostly attributed to the fact that the building, known as the Ginter Mansion Stable, was originally constructed as a facility to store farm related animals and equipment.3                       

The gallery was first opened in 1930 with only the second floor deemed as a space to display art. This did not last however because by the late 1940’s the need for more gallery space became a necessity and so two additional stories were added to the existing structure.4

VCU Anderson Gallery and Carriage House, 2011. Virginia Commonwealth University. JPG. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/ (April 12, 2011).

            The architecture of the Anderson Gallery has experienced a significant change throughout its history. From its initial beginnings as a stable to its shift towards a more contemporary establishment, it has successfully engaged a wide demographic of visitors. This type of achievement is something to be celebrated. The Anderson Gallery has become an important landmark in the Richmond art community while also serving as an educational resource. Carl Grodach, a research writer for the School of Urban and Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Arlington, notes the significance of the role museums play in their communities by commenting on the importance of a gallery’s influence; “museums and other cultural institutions have undergone dramatic transformations both externally and in their perceived role in our economic and social life.”5

            Another noteworthy university art museum is the Muscarelle Museum of Art, part of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Commenting on its architectural influences alone, it is extremely different from the Anderson Gallery and for that matter from the rest of Williamsburg and its surrounding campus. The architectural style that is reflected throughout the campus and the city is Colonial. All of the buildings are constructed with brick and iron typical of what was found during the American Colonial Period. However, the Muscarelle Museum significantly breaks this tradition. Although the exterior is composed substantially of brick, its harsh geometric lines and unique structural shape pose more of a resemblance to modern and abstract architecture. The building is so unique and contemporary that it is difficult to comprehend that it was constructed in 1983.

Aside from its aesthetic differences from the Anderson Gallery, the Muscarelle Museum is unique for two reasons, the first of which being that its architectural history is significantly different. The Muscarelle Museum, unlike the Anderson Gallery was purposefully built as a museum and was not converted from an already existing structure.6  Because of this, the Muscarelle Museum was able to create for itself an ideal environment to properly facilitate its purposes. Although the radical design of the museum may not present itself as the most desirable or functional aspect, it is obvious that it reflects multiple important architectural considerations.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), a Renaissance architect and scholar of architecture emphasized that “buildings must appear to be like complete and well- defined bodies, of which one member matches another and all the members are necessary for what is required.”7 This is a fairly accurate representation of the Muscarelle Museum and serves as an introduction to the second reason for the museum’s uniqueness: its exterior artwork called Sun Sonata, by Gene Davis in 1983. Although it is not noticeable during the day, after the sun sets, the entire south side of the Muscarelle Museum is illuminated with a rainbow of lights, which is dramatically different from any normal architectural design.8

Though the external architectural qualities of this museum are bold and unique, it’s interior has a substantial flaw: lighting. When one enters the museum after gazing upon the impressive façade, there is a moment of disappointment when the lack of natural light becomes evident. The artworks throughout the museum are in multiple instances illuminated in a manner that does not showcase them in their most desirable condition. The overall aesthetic is then projected as a dreary classical experience. This is a significant issue which emphasizes the importance of museum design and cohesiveness both internally and externally. 

   
                                                       Muscarelle Museum of Art South Facade. Gene Davis, Sun Sonata 1983. 6

 

     Muscarelle Museum of Art., 2011. The College of William and Mary. JPG, http://1.bp.blogspot.com/ (April 12, 2011).

                                                                        

The Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, located on the campus of Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, is an additional example of university art museum architecture. Unlike both the Muscarelle Museum and the Anderson Gallery, The Longwood Center for the Visual Arts is located in the most rural of settings. Despite this, the institution is somewhat urban and has a staggering thirty-eight thousand visitors each year.

The space itself is located in downtown Farmville in a large, twenty-five thousand square foot former retail building. The building is seemingly modern in construction and does not have any extraordinary features that can be compared to the Muscarelle Museum. However, the design is simple and effective. The structure has the basic makings of any gallery or museum, four walls, a floor and a ceiling. In an effort to provide some contrast, a wave-like awning and modern lighting have been added to the exterior of the building to help illuminate the name and distinguish it from other storefronts.9 

One distinct advantage that this museum has is that its style is not quite as dated. By using this term it is meant that one could not necessarily distinguish exactly when it was built based upon an initial investigation. With both the Muscarelle Museum and the Anderson Gallery, the architectural history was perhaps slightly more evident.

            Although the design for this museum is simple and linear, it is perfectly formulated for the mission statement of Longwood University which above all emphasizes the value of an education, which is “more than a means to earn a living, it is a means by which to live a life- a life of learning, beauty, and hope.” 10     

        
Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Longwood University 2011.Longwood Center for the Visual Arts. Longwood University, 2011. JPG,  http://www.scrupe.com (Mar 6, 2011).

           Until this point, this essay has examined the influences of architecture on university art museums located exclusively in Virginia. However, it is necessary to widen the scope through which architecture is viewed and investigate another prominent institution in the country outside of the state. In this instance, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota ,which is considered, architecturally, one of the most avant- garde university art museums in the country, presents itself as an appropriate choice.

The Weisman Art Museum is seemingly worlds apart from every institution mentioned thus far. The sheer size and design of the building makes it difficult to compare with other similar institutions. Its imposing stance and abstract design, compliments of acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, give the structure enough identity and purpose to stand on its own without the help of anything else. The fact that it is associated with an actual university just adds to its already overwhelming accomplishments. The structure itself was built in 1993 and is absolutely a feat of modern technology, as is congruent with many of Gehry’s designs. This iconic building has helped to influence what people imagine when they think of Minnesota.11

            This museum is architecturally unique and sophisticated. While it does incorporate some of the construction styles of the university’s other buildings, it takes on a personality all its own; “the building stretches out to embrace its surroundings, with great steel arcs that join it to the structure of an adjacent river bridge, and with side and rear walls dressed in the masonry uniform of this predominantly red brick campus. From within, windows (over scaled but with the proportions of residential buildings) afford a visual bridge between the galleries and the Minneapolis skyline.”12 Additionally, the majority of the building is covered with polished aluminum so that it shines very aggressively in the sunlight.

            Another key distinction this museum exhibits is its use of natural light to help illuminate artwork. Many museums and galleries refrain from using natural light because of its harmful effects to artwork; however the Weisman has multiple openings in the roof for controlled natural sunlight to filter in.

            Although the Weisman Art Museum is an extraordinary architectural achievement and influence, many people, including architect Frank Gehry, believe that the building can be made even better. That is why currently the museum is closed and undergoing extremely drastic and intensive structural and cosmetic modifications. Beginning in October of 2010, the museum started to initiate these changes. The museum is scheduled to be closed for more than a year but hopes to construct five new galleries within the structure and enhance some of its exterior architectural elements. The end result will hopefully be an even more architecturally and academically successful institution.13

 
Front View Weisman Museum of Art, 2008. University of Minnesota. Web Urbanist, 2008. JPG, http://weburbanist.com/2009/01/12/creative-modern-and-postmodern-museum-designs/ (April 12, 2011).                  

            University art museums both in and outside of Virginia have architecture that is intriguing, expected, appropriate, abstract and purposeful. Architecture is vital to the way in which viewers perceive university art museums in Virginia and beyond. It is exceedingly difficult for a museum or gallery to be taken with the utmost scholarly respect when it does not impose on its constituents a sense of authority and education. However, establishments such as the museums and galleries that have been mentioned are in a difficult situation. They are being forced by the evolution of contemporary society “to provide a much broader public role than they have in the past.”14 With the over- indulgence of entertainment and social interaction being brought about by younger demographics, these institutions are forced to revise their policies and textbook approaches to education. Through the ever-changing lens of university art museum practices, there remains one constant, architecture, which serves as an anchor on which comparisons and in -depth analysis can be derived.

University art museum architecture is at a critical juncture in history. As time evolves, it is likely that a trend of more sophisticated and intriguing architecture like what was seen with the Weisman Museum will become a new standard. As technology evolves and plays a larger role in our lives, the more classical style of architecture will yield way to a new tradition where the white cube widely associated with art display can fuse with more modern techniques of art exhibition and arrangement to ultimately portray the art in its most pristine and accessible condition. The future holds the promise of more innovation, creativity, abstractness, and the notion of building upon previous successful museum practices.  

Architecture is one of the most important elements of our individual museum experience. It is the first thing that can be noticed upon arrival and the last thing seen while walking away. It is the architecture that puts the rest of the institution in context and serves as the primary method by which one can “construct meaning” from a university art museum.15



1 Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City. American ed. Aldo Rossi, Peter Eisenman. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1982. 103.

2 Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City. American ed. Aldo Rossi, Peter Eisenman. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1982. 103.

3 Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Anderson Gallery. Virginia Commonwealth University. http://www.vcu.edu/arts/gallery/(March 6, 2011).  

4 Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Anderson Gallery. Virginia Commonwealth University. http://www.vcu.edu/arts/gallery/(March 6, 2011).  

5 Carl Grodach. "Museums as Urban Catalysts: The Role of Urban Design in Flagship Cultural Development."Journal of Urban Design 13, no. 2 (June 2008): 196.

6 The College of William and Mary, The Muscarelle Museum of Art. The College of William and Mary. http://web.wm.edu/muscarelle/index.html.

7 Palladio, Andrea. The Four Books On Architecture. 1 ed. Robert Tavernor, Richard Schofield. London: The MIT Press, 2002. 7.

8 The College of William and Mary, The Muscarelle Museum of Art. The College of William and Mary. http://web.wm.edu/muscarelle/index.html.

9 Longwood Center for the Visual Arts: art in everyday life. Longwood University. http://www.longwood.edu/lcva/(March 6, 2011).

10 Longwood Center for the Visual Arts: art in everyday life. Longwood University. http://www.longwood.edu/lcva/(March 6, 2011).

11 University of Minnesota Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. University of Minnesota.http://www.weisman.umn.edu/(March 6, 2011).

12 Herbert Muschamp. ARCHITECTURE VIEW; Frank Gehry Lifts Creativity Out of the Box. New York Times, December 12, 1993., 44, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (March 6, 2011).

13 University of Minnesota Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. University of Minnesota.http://www.weisman.umn.edu/(March 6, 2011).

14 Mix Slater. "'Escaping to the gallery': understanding the motivations of visitors to galleries." International Journal of Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Marketing 12, no. 2 (May 2007): 149-162.

15  Margaret A. Lindauer. Reshaping Museum Space: Architecture, Design, Exhibitions/Museum Texts: Communication Frameworks. Curator 50, 3 (July 2007): 362-368.

Bibliography

Grodach, Carl. "Museums as Urban Catalysts: The Role of Urban Design in Flagship Cultural Development." Journal of Urban Design 13, no. 2 (June 2008): 195-212. Urban Studies Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2011).

Herbert, Muschamp. "ARCHITECTURE VIEW; Frank Gehry Lifts Creativity Out of the Box." New York Times, December 12, 1993., 44, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 6, 2011).

Lindauer, Margaret A. "Reshaping Museum Space: Architecture, Design, Exhibitions/Museum Texts: Communication Frameworks." Curator 50, no. 3 (July 2007): 362-368. Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2011).

Longwood Center for the Visual Arts: art in everyday life. Longwood University. http://www.longwood.edu/lcva/

Palladio, Andrea. The Four Books On Architecture. 1 ed. Robert Tavernor, Richard Schofield. London: The MIT Press, 2002.

Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City. American ed. Aldo Rossi, Peter Eisenman. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1982.

Slater, Mix. "'Escaping to the gallery': understanding the motivations of visitors to galleries." International Journal of Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Marketing 12, no. 2 (May 2007): 149-162. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2011).

The College of William and Mary, The Muscarelle Museum of Art. The College of William and Mary. http://web.wm.edu/muscarelle/index.html.

University of Minnesota Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. University of Minnesota.http://www.weisman.umn.edu/       

Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Anderson Gallery. Virginia Commonwealth University. http://www.vcu.edu/arts/gallery/