Westmoreland Museum has designs on its future
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Just as a house becomes too small for a growing family, so, too, can a museum become too small for its burgeoning collection. Such is the case with the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
“Our galleries were designed to display historical American paintings,” says Judith O'Toole, director and CEO of the museum, “and as we show more post-1950 and early 20th-century (artworks) our walls are not high enough. The galleries are not laid out in a manner that is accepting of that kind of work.”
What was first recognized as an expanding need 12 years ago with the launch of a capital campaign has now become a full-fledged force, as the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is making a leap into the future with its newest expansion.
With plans to break ground later this summer, the $18 million dollar effort will consist of a complete overhaul of the main building, the addition of a newly designed LEED-certified east wing, and a redesign of the grounds that will transform the visitor experience.
Designed by the Manhattan-based architecture firm Ennead, the new LEED silver building is “a groundbreaking 21st-century design” that will transform the Greensburg cityscape, O'Toole says.
It will include new galleries, classrooms, studios and public gathering spaces with the most current technology for new and traditional museumgoers. Having a flowing floor plan that will transport visitors back in time through the museum's collection, the new building will create a sense of openness, while seamlessly combining the old with the new.
“We wanted a building for the 21st century, that was architecturally significant, that reflected the quality of the artwork inside it, that was designed by an American architect, because we are a museum of American art, and that somehow did not degrade the existing building, but took its best features and incorporated those in it,” O'Toole says.
The Ennead firm was chosen from 63 around the country vying for the job, 17 of which were from Pennsylvania, 13 of those from Pittsburgh.
“There were just so many who had done museum renovations, as had Ennead, that we couldn't match the same experience with a Pittsburgh firm,” O'Toole says.
Ennead's projects over the past 10 years alone have included designs for the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2004, 2007) in New York City; an expansion of the Yale University Art Gallery (2012) in New Haven, Conn.; and recently a project for the Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, N.C., in which they nearly doubled the size of a museum similar to that of the Westmoreland. The firm has received 11 American Institute of Architects National Honor Awards, five of which were for museums.
As for the landscape design, LaQuatra Bonci Landscape of Pittsburgh will complete a re-design of the grounds. “We're doing a great deal of earth-moving in front of the building,” O'Toole says. “We are lowering the landscape to street level, and we're creating a park in front of the museum and consolidating the parking at the base of the park.”
There also will be an ADA-compliant wheelchair accessible ramp that will wind through the park, leading up to the building. The rear of the building will have additional parking, as well as a drop-off area.
Opened in 1959, the museum as it stands today was designed by Greensburg architects Sorber & Hoone. However, original plans called for a design by influential American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) whose modern exterior concept was rejected by the board. Johnson's floor plans were essentially retained by Sorber & Hoone, but the firm designed the Georgian style facade to be more befitting of the surrounding neighborhood.
Nine years after the opening, a west wing was built along Main Street to accommodate the museum's growing collection. Except for a few interior changes to the galleries, the building's overall footprint has remained untouched.
O'Toole says that, when the building was opened in 1959, “the museum-going audience was very different.”
“There were much fewer education programs,” she says. “We weren't as welcoming to the general public. It was more for people who were already in the know who came in.”
The new building, on the other hand, is designed for a wider audience. “We like to say that we are not just building a new building, we're building a new experience,” O'Toole says of the renovation project. “It really is about the visitor, it is about the collection, it is about education, it is about the building and the way the building looks, the way people enter the building and move through the building.”
Having 16-foot-high ceilings and a massive picture window that will look out onto the city of Greensburg, the east wing will have all of the latest enhanced museum technologies, including audiovisual programs and guided tours, proper lighting and conservation grade systems. Many of those systems will be incorporated throughout the remainder of the museum as well. “It will be subtle in the galleries, but it will be available,” O'Toole says.
Entry will be through the new east wing, where much of the traveling exhibits will be displayed. “Then you'll move from that space to our new, modern contemporary collection galleries, which are also in the new wing with high ceiling galleries,” O'Toole says.
O'Toole says that as the visitor walks through the museum, “You're actually going to walk back in time when you visit our collection.”
“So, it'll start with the most recent (artwork) and go back through history,” she says. “You'll move through the existing building in a different way. You'll move longways across, instead of now, where you enter in the middle and go to the right or the left. So, it's going to be a much more seamless experience for the visitor, going through the galleries. You really will not know by the time you get to the second floor that you are in the old building. It will feel like a brand-new experience throughout.”
The expansion and renovation plans have been approved by the Greensburg Historic Architectural Review Board, and just last week the city's Planning Commission Board approved the overall design, as well as all mechanical systems.
O'Toole says the radical new design bristled a few feathers when first revealed because of its futuristic appearance. “It is challenging, but we really felt that we didn't want to conform what was expected in Greensburg,” O'Toole says. “Our city, our community groups, the volunteers — have all expressed great enthusiasm about the new building.”
O'Toole says that while the renovations are underway, the museum plans to continue operations in the former Stickley Audi & Co. furniture store on Route 30, east of Greensburg in Unity, under the working title “Westmoreland @rt 30.”
With its similarly styled Georgian architecture, O'Toole says of that building, “It offered us a place where we could keep our collection, do small exhibitions, offer changing exhibitions and do our educational programs full force, do our social programs, have our shop and have our staff all at one place rather than being scattered in various locations. We're very excited about that.”
It also has a large open space where the museum staff plans to do a lot of experimentation with educational techniques and different ways of running programs, mounting collections and temporary shows.
“It will be two years to continue in this kind of playful mode that we have been in to experiment with what works,” O'Toole says. “So, that when we move into what we call the Future Westmoreland we are as we promised — a museum doing business differently.”
O'Toole surmises her staff will need at least two months to move the collection and themselves back into the new museum building before opening.
“As far as I am aware, never in the history of the museum have we had to move everything out of the building,” she says. “And we will obviously be very careful with the collection.”
The expansion project is just part of a planned $38 million campaign that includes both capital and endowment funds. So far, the museum has raised $16.5 million toward that goal, including a lead gift of $8 million from the R. K. Mellon Foundation and the commitment of museum trustees, who exceeded their $1 million goal by almost double.
“We have about a $4 million endowment for a well over $2 million annual budget,” O'Toole says. “So, we want to build the endowment to at least $20 million.”
O'Toole says $4 million of the campaign will go just to support operations during the five-year run of the campaign. As for the figure of $38 million, she says, “It's a big number for a museum of our size for a city of our size, but we've done our homework and we obviously wouldn't enter into this if we didn't think the goal was achievable.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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