With its $24 million expansion and renovation nearly complete, the chrysler museum is ready for its 21st century-style comeback
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.”
Jeff Harrison adds that there will be two new galleries on the Chrysler’s second level, each approximately 30 by 80 feet. These are designed to be very grand spaces with a skylight capping each one of them. “We’ll devote one of those to 17th and 18th Century European paintings, our Baroque collection, and another we’ll devote to our 19th century French Impressionist painting,” Harrison says.
Art like this deserves a state-of-the-art home, Hennessey points out. “It’s a collection like no other,” he says. “Because the core of it was acquired by this eccentric guy, it has a personality.” The director says that Mr. Chrysler liked big things. “Big in scale and big in impact. He didn’t care much for straightforward portraits or landscapes or still lifes. He liked subject pictures much better.”
Harrison, who worked with Walter Chrysler before the collector’s death in 1988, likes to say that the man owned every piece of art on the East Coast … for 15 minutes. “He ran through a series of collections, from his first days as a young man in the 1930s until his final acquisitions in the late 1970s. He was, right after World War II, buying at extraordinary speed, high velocity—just masses of works of art that were freeing up from European collections. I’ve tried my best to put my arms around the overall dynamic of his collecting career, and I found it to be near impossible. I don’t know if he slept. He just never stopped buying and trading.”
“During the course of his life, he went through a series of collecting enthusiasms that changed,” Hennessey echoes. The medium of glass was one that the collector stuck with all the way through his life. “As a young man, he was very enthusiastic about Picasso and Braque and Matisse, classic French artists, and then his interest shifted to master paintings so he sold off his early pieces. The collection evolved and changed. He bought in quantity and sometimes when you do that, there’s a lot of good stuff and there’s some not-so-good stuff.”
Overall, he had an exceptional eye, the curators say. Legend has it that Walter Chrysler began collecting art when he was 14, buying a small watercolor of a nude figure. An authority figure at his boarding school took the painting and destroyed it. Cue the gnashing of teeth by art lovers everywhere—the work was by the world-renowned Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
His father also collected art and once told Walter Jr. to enjoy the pieces in the family home while he could because, one day, they would go to a museum. “They belong to everyone,” he was told. The younger Chrysler treated his collecting very seriously. “When you undertake to preserve for your community some of the best examples of all periods of mankind,” he once told a newspaper reporter, “You’re attempting to educate its population.”
How did Norfolk acquire this treasure? For that, we can thank Chrysler’s wife, Jean, who was a city native (and who is responsible for the Chrysler’s prestigious art library, one of the nation’s finest). “Walter’s first museum was in Provincetown, Mass.,” says Jeff Harrison. “He converted a Methodist church and tried to stuff his art in there. It was way too small. He wanted the city to pay for improvements, parking, and the city wasn’t as engaged in it.”
His wife cajoled him into looking at Norfolk. “Jean kept elbowing him in the ribs, asking him, ‘Why do you want to put it in Portland, Ore. or Portland, Maine when you can put it in Norfolk? They have a building, they have a city eager to have it, you can get municipal support, you have the art, they have the building. I know the people there, let’s make a deal.’ And he finally said OK.”
The collection he donated was so large that museum curators are still sifting through it, finding gems. Hennessey: “If one had to summarize what Jeff Harrison has been doing here over his many years, it’s been taking this extraordinary bunch of stuff that Walter left us and pruning it and sorting and sifting it so we can identify the many truly great things. We’ve essentially sold off the pieces that weren’t up to snuff. As a result, what’s left is all the good stuff.”
But it isn’t just Walter Chrysler’s collection that awaits rediscovery (about three-fifths of the museum’s total holdings come from his collection). Before he arrived, the institution was known as the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, established in 1933. With the expansion, some of the seminal pieces collected by the earlier museum can be shown—many for the first time in decades. “I’ve had a really fun time looking at the collection as a whole,” Mann says, “and finding that many of the early purchases made by the Norfolk Museum are some of the best pieces we have.”
He mentions a giant statue by American sculptor Daniel Chester French, and a huge Bronze piece called the Spirit of Life. Both will come out of storage. There is also a stunning work by artist Helen Turner. “It’s a great painting that depicts two girls sitting on a porch having tea and holding Chinese paper lanterns. It’s one of my favorite pieces here. Turner was a second generation American Impressionist, and this work was purchased for the museum in 1927, before it was even built. This piece was something that was not on view before, and it speaks to the very foundation of this museum.”
The expansion isn’t the only big change occurring at the Chrysler this year. Director Hennessey, who has been with the museum since 1997, will retire in October. “Bill has made the museum [a] premiere community art resource,” Harrison says. “He has opened the Chrysler to the entire region and made the community feel welcome in a number of ways, most recently in his Gallery Host initiative, which fills the galleries not with security officers but with men and women who like to engage the public, who are there and less formal.”
Because of Hennessey’s attempts to make the art experience accessible, the Chrysler seems like a different place than in times past—friendlier, more open. “When Walter was here, he was sort of standoffish to some,” Harrison admits. “There were some Norfolk residents who resented Walter, this New York character coming from the city and plonking his museum down in the old Norfolk museum. They didn’t like that. So Bill came in at a very strategic point and worked it in such a way that the museum is viewed as the community’s museum. That’s a phenomenal accomplishment.”
“It’s been exciting to come to a museum with strong and stable leadership,” Mann says of Hennessey. A relative newbie—arriving in 2011—he says that he’s “done a lot of listening. The community tells us what they expect from us, what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. Everyone these days is looking for museums to be accessible, to be welcoming, rather than places that are stuffy with lots of Do Not Touch signs everywhere. The Chrysler is doing an excellent job of breaking the mold of this traditional formal space into being a place that is casual, fun, engaging. You can come in and learn something and be entertained.”
Hennessey, who arrived at the museum from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says that the time is right for new leadership that can build on what he’s done. “The museum business is a funny one,” he says. “American art museums in particular have not always done what they say they’re there to do—they create an atmosphere that is intimidating or off-putting, giving the impression one has to come from a certain economic background, or social background, or have a certain education, in order to have a good time at an art museum. We’ve worked very hard to say, ‘no, that’s nonsense.’”
With planned exhibits later this year that will range from the unveiling of a large Peter Paul Reubens painting to an exhibit of Cubist works on loan from the National Gallery in D.C., the Chrysler Museum is determined to be as relevant and vital as ever. The building may look different, Hennessey says, but its core mission statement will stay the same. “We want to see people and works of art come together in infinitely rewarding ways.”
The Chrysler Museum of Art will reopen on May 10. For more, go to Chrysler.org.