Published: September 7, 2004
For more than a year The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art has been using “look… look again” in marketing-related materials, a hint at what the public could expect once the museum reopened its doors.
The museum reopened on June 13 after 14 months of major renovation and expansion. It is now home to 25,000 square feet of new and redesigned exhibition space including a screening room, a sound gallery, a 22-foot-high project space, a 100-seat performance space, a state-of-the-art education center, improved visitor amenities and a redesigned two-acre outdoor exhibition space.
Although museum director Harry Philbrick told Antiques and The Arts Weekly last year that, “the entire plan is really designed to accommodate what we do now, not necessarily increase the number of programs that we do,” the expansion has already proven that the Aldrich will indeed be offering more to visitors.
“While the museum is remaining on a trimester schedule, with the old building we were able to present two to three major shows each year. Now we can offer eight new projects including sculpture,” Aldrich curator Jessia Hough pointed out recently. “This building allows us more flexibility in starting and stopping our exhibitions.
“Whenever a visitor comes in, the spaces will be different,” she said.
Architect Charles Hay took great care to create a space that will meet the growing needs of the museum staff and visitors, and continue to accommodate art within a very historic community. The museum is located within a building originally constructed in 1738 and is on a very traditional-looking Main Street filled with great big Colonial-era mansions, small shops and restaurants.
“We’ve got a real balancing act with the building and its historic district,” Philbrick said in back in April 2003. “This is a building that tries to hold the idea of a historic district and contemporary art together.”
Hay and the team from Tappé Associates obviously listened to the museum board’s concerns before creating their designs.
The building’s design presents a solution to the conflicts that arose when a museum dedicated to exhibiting cutting-edge art is located within a historic district and needs to stretch its legs. Based on an abstraction of traditional New England architecture, the building now features a double-peaked, multilevel roof that slopes downward toward the back, from peaked to flat, moving the eye from the street-facing façade to the rear landscape while emphasizing the building’s context.
“Old Hundred,” the original 6,000-square-foot historic house at 258 Main Street constructed in 1783, has been rebuilt to its original beautiful character. An addition that had been put onto the museum in 1986 has been razed and a brand-new, 19,000-square-foot building has been constructed to the east of Old Hundred, with the two buildings connected by an entrance plaza and a series of terraced steps.
Old Hundred will now be used as the museum’s administrative offices, while the new building will house the public galleries, education center and workshops.
The first floor of the museum houses the main lobby, information desk, bookstore, screening room, the new education center and the Leir Gallery – a performance and exhibition space with seating for more than 100 people.
A fully dedicated education center will allow the museum to host more hands-on programs and workshops.
Even the lobby has been turned into exhibition space, with the British artist Laura Ford presenting her “Headthinkers” series in the grand reception space and her most recent installation, “Wreckers,” in the adjoining hallway.
One of museum director Harry Philbrick’s favorite new amenities: a camera obscura. Taken literally from New Latin to mean “dark chamber,” a camera obscura is a darkened enclosure with an aperture usually provided with a lens through which light from external objects enters to form an inverted image of the objects on the opposite surface.
At the Aldrich, the camera obscura is an entire room into which visitors must enter and then wait approximately two minutes for their eyes to adjust. The lens is on the west-facing wall of the room, and visitors are rewarded with an image of the exterior objects on the wall to the right of the doorway from which they have entered. As their eyes adjust more, the movements of passing cars and even pedestrians can be picked up.
If visitors look to their left before entering the camera obscura room (or to their right as they exit), they will take in another work of art: Mary Lum’s “Interchange.” Lum worked with students in the most recent course of Art Lab, a high school art program, to create an installation that has been mounted on the east side of Old Hundred.
The work, called “Interchange,” focuses on the site of the museum as a place of old and new experiences.
Through September 1, the museum is also presenting “Into My World: Recent British Sculpture,” with work by nine emerging and midcareer British artists: Laura Ford, Matt Franks, Roger Hiorns, James Ireland, Jim Lambie, Mike Nelson, Mariele Neudecker, David Thorpe and Saskia Olde Wolbers.
Ann Lislegaard’s “Passing By,” a new sound project, is inaugurating the museum’s new dedicated sound gallery.
On the main floor, the Leir Gallery is hosting “The Drawn Page,” new works on paper by 26 artists.
Also on the main floor, Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #1123, Planes with broken bands of color” inaugurates the museum’s new two-story Project Gallery. The site-specific work covers the 1,800 square feet of the space’s south, west and north walls, leaving the east wall empty and establishing a specific vantage point for viewing the entire work.
The three-acre site now includes the two-acre Cornish Family Sculpture Garden, a gently sloping space that will be used for changing exhibitions of sculpture.
Current outdoor projects include Jon Conner’s “Self-Sufficient Barnyard,” a collection of 42 carved Styrofoam animals that is on the museum’s front lawn; Jason Middlebrook’s “The Beginning of the End,” a work based on Robert Indiana’s iconic “Love” series; and the return of Nina Levy’s “Big Baby,” a 7-foot-tall sculpture that had been on the front lawn during the museum’s renovations.
Finally, the museum is now fully handicapped accessible.
“We finally have an elevator,” said Harry Philbrick, “and we’re really pleased to finally be up to date” in keeping handicapped visitors comfortable and having all of the museum’s galleries and amenities accessible.
When it opened four decades ago The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art was one of the first museums in the country devoted solely to the exhibition of contemporary art. The dream of the late Larry Aldrich, who founded the museum in 1964, remains the focus of today’s staff: The museum’s mission has always been to serve as a national leader in the exhibition of contemporary art and to be an innovator in museum education.
The Aldrich continues to be a noncollecting museum; it is more concerned with temporary presentations of the latest art than building a permanent collection. Such a collection would only move from being contemporary to classic in the fast-moving world of modern art.
The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, at 258 Main Street in Ridgefield, can be reached at 203-438-4519 or www.AldrichArt.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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