Art Unveiled

With its $24 million expansion and renovation nearly complete, the chrysler museum is ready for its 21st century-style comeback

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The older man loved to wander around the Chrysler Museum galleries. Lurking among the early modernist paintings and Tiffany glassware, the modestly-dressed septuagenarian would approach random visitors and ask, “‘What do you think about this piece?’ or ‘Do you like that sculpture?’”

“He’d chat with them for awhile,” Jeff Harrison recalls, “and he’d laugh and wander off. The visitor would invariably ask, ‘Who was that?’
‘That’s Walter Chrysler.’”

Harrison, the Chrysler Museum’s head curator, belts out a huge laugh, reveling in the 30-year-old memory. “Mr. Chrysler really didn’t stand on ceremony.”

In 1971, when the son of the founder of the Chrysler car company left his voluminous and ever-evolving art collection to the museum that now bears his name, he put Norfolk on the art world map. But the man who was once called an “art tycoon” was unpretentious, Harrison recalls. “He drove an old Plymouth station wagon. Like a lot of collectors, he sunk every dime into his collection.”

The Chrysler Museum of Art reopens on May 10 following a $45 million private fundraising campaign and 16 months of extensive renovation and expansion. It’s the biggest upgrade in the cultural institution’s history. With more room to wander, and more art to chat over, one has to wonder what the venerable collector would think about the new $24 million home being refurbished for his prized works.

“There is not one gallery that will remain the same.” Harrison says. “Repainted, relit, re-floored and completely reinstalled with new interpretation throughout. It’s a new museum.”

“We’re still hustling,” William Hennessey, the museum’s president and director, admits on a sunny March day, a little more than two months before the ribbon cutting. “We’ll make it, but it’s going to be close.”

Today, the Chrysler, closed to the public, is alive with construction workers, exhibit designers and museum employees walking briskly about, and the sound of hammering, drills and forklift beeps make for a busy soundtrack. The museum’s open lobby—“a community gathering place,” Hennessey says—is so filled with equipment, boxes and hard hats that it is hardly recognizable.

The director says that changes in the place won’t just be cosmetic. “Every work of art has been taken down, we’ve thought fresh about how or whether to present it,” Hennessey says. “When we reopen, visitors will see some old favorites from the permanent collection, and they’ll see a lot of pieces they’ve never seen before.”

One example: a glorious 1922 painting, 10 feet tall, by Pablo Picasso that was part of a decoration for a Beaux Arts Ball in Paris. “It’s been here since the 70s,” Hennessey says. “But we didn’t have the space to show it.”

This overhaul of Coastal Virginia’s most prominent art museum will “affect the art 360 degrees from every angle,” Jeff Harrison, who has been at the Chrysler since 1982, says. “We are adding roughly 8,000 square feet of new gallery space, but we are also reconfiguring existing gallery space in a way that will free up more square footage for art. So we’re looking at close to 11 to 12,000 square feet that we can use to bring more [pieces] out.”

A project like this means taking care of lots of little details. “I’ve become an expert on floor coverings and light bulbs,” Hennessey says with a labored smile.

But there are also larger improvements—like moving the main elevator to help with sightlines and traffic flow, or fixing the 210,000-square-foot museum’s climate control system. “It’s essential to our ability to care for these objects. It was 30 and sometimes 50 years old,” Hennessey says of the latter. “Our fire and security systems needed replacing. We were using far too much energy so we upgraded to LED lights for most of our gallery lighting. Wheelchairs and strollers no longer have to use a side door to get in. There’s an expanded café in the front with a proper kitchen and a nice terrace looking over the water.”

Hennessey stresses that one thing will not change. “We’ll still be free,” he says. “That’s the bedrock of who we are.”

The impetus for the renovation was that the Chrysler needed, to paraphrase comedian George Carlin, more room for their stuff. But there was also a need to expand. “There were works in private collections that we wanted but couldn’t really ask for because we didn’t have the space for them.” Hennessey says, adding with a grin: “You may see some of them on loan here at the time of the opening.”

The Chrysler’s most prestigious assembly—its 10,000 works in glass—is to be completely rethought. “We’re not only adding space, but we are reconfiguring the layout so that the glass galleries are much more open, easier to navigate, more clearly presented,” Jeff Harrison says, adding that the number of individual pieces will be fewer. “One of the problems we faced in the last installation, in the feedback we got from visitors, was that there was kind of an overabundance of works in glass. There was too much of a forest to see the trees ... the individual masterpieces. So we’ve thinned things out a bit and placed more emphasis in those galleries on interpretation so that people can actually walk through and retrace the history of glassmaking from the ancient period right up to the contemporary.”

The museum’s Ancient Worlds gallery has also been rebuilt, as the curator says, “from the ground up. We’ve approached those collections, whether they be Meso-American or Islamic or Egyptian, with interpretation in mind. More explanation of what’s on view. Again, we’ll have fewer objects, but they will be interpreted in a way that I think will make those objects sing.”

Taking a tour of the in-progress Ancient Worlds space—strewn with large Egyptian mummies, pottery and masks wrapped in plastic—I ask Exhibition Manager Willis Potter, who is busy re-mounting objects, if he has ever accidentally hung a piece upside down? “Oh no, no,” Willis, who has been with the Chrysler for 35 years, says. He points to detailed mounting instructions taped on the wall. “People are particular about these pieces. So you may have them move it an inch or a quarter of an inch. But that goes along with the territory. It takes that kind of pickiness to have it look this good.” Nothing is left to chance, he says. “Even the colors on the walls, the height of the pedestals, the curators and designers work that out. How it’s displayed is never an accident.”

Ancient Worlds, like many of the galleries, will present new running themes, Jeff Harrison says, such as religion and the afterlife, daily life, or the human form. “This is so people can compare and contrast the art as they move from space to space.”
For flexibility, the walls of the museum’s McKinnon wing have been taken out, and the room opened up. “It’s now a huge exhibition space that has much more openness, expandability. We’re going to use portable walls to reinvent that space every few months or so with works from 1950 on. The floor plan will be fluid and subject to change, just as contemporary art is.”

“You think about a permanent collection being static. It won’t be,” says Crawford Alexander Mann III, who is the Chrysler’s Joan and Macon Brock curator of American art. “I can break things up into themes now. We’ll have a gallery with all work from the Civil War and Reconstruction—[the museum has one of the nation’s largest collections of Civil War photographs]—and an entire room of American landscape paintings.”

One thing Mann wants to do, especially with the new American galleries, is to bring out more works by women artists. “We have some great examples in the collection of 19th Century American sculpture. We’re one of the top five museums in the country for our American sculpture collection, and there were several professional female artists in the 1860s–1880s working as sculptors in marble, like Margaret Foley.” This is something that art museums rarely explore, he says. “We will be able to show art making by both sexes.”

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