After a sixteen-month closure, the Yale Center for British Art reopened to the Yale University community on the afternoon of Monday May 9. The excitement was palpable. People of all ages from all quarters of the university wove their way from bottom to top to bottom of the building – students, staff, faculty, donors, all transfixed and enthused by the space, and what they discovered in that space. It was a kind of viewer utopia I had not experienced before: strangers smiled and spoke to each other, people audibly admired and made remarks to each other as they marvelled at the return to life of a much loved building and its collection. Since opening to the public on May 11, the response to the renovation of the building and rehang of the collection has been resoundingly positive. The interior space has been reconfigured, amenities improved, safety and security were upgraded and the the collection has been re-hung. But, this project hasn’t just been about restoring a building, it was also about improving accessibility more broadly. The refurbishment project has made the collection more accessible to those who want to use it and opened it up to those who never thought about visiting it, in New Haven and at Yale, in North American and across the globe.
The Center is an integral part of downtown New Haven as well as the University community itself. It functions as a public gallery and is committed to outreach as well as being a research institute dedicated to teaching and excellence in the study of British art and culture. It was established in 1966 with an endowment from the American collector, philanthropist and Yale University graduate, Paul Mellon (1907-1999), who gave his own collection of British art and provided for the construction of a building in which the Center would be housed. The collection continues to grow, and is proudly the largest and most comprehensive collection of British Art outside of the United Kingdom: containing a rich diversity of media from paintings, sculpture, rare books, prints, drawings, to manuscripts. It presents the development of British art and culture from the Protestant Reformation to the present day (including works by artists from Europe, America and the Antipodes who worked in Britain). I felt I understood the chronological breadth of the collection most clearly on a recent visit. I spent a long time marvelling at an exquisite painted alabaster relief carving of the assumption of the Virgin (Nottinghamshire, c. 1450) (above), a very rare survivor of the English Reformation, and soon after found myself confronted by Rachel Whiteread’s plaster Ten Tables (1996). The stretch from medieval to modern in a country where violence towards images played such a prominent role in its political and religious history astonished me afresh. The building itself plays a vital role in presenting such disparate works in a cohesive way to viewers.
The architect commissioned to design the Center was Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), himself a member of the Yale community both as a professor of Architecture and as a designer. Kahn’s first building for Yale was the University Art Gallery (1953), one of the first significant works of his long and celebrated career. The Center was one of his last commissions; it opened in 1977, three years after his death. Inside, we can see with striking clarity the realisation of one of Kahn passionate beliefs: that museum buildings should serve a collection, not dominate it. The reopening after the extensive period of renovation was thus not just a celebration of the painstaking conservation of an internationally acclaimed structure; it was also about the renewal of Kahn’s vision for this gallery and its relationship with a specific collection. You could say that the renovation involved three key aspects: a series of radical interventions in the structure itself including increased safety measures (new electrical systems, fire protection and safety services); the renewal of the interior and the materials that make up the varied surfaces on show to viewers (glass, metal, linen, wool, wood); and the reimagined display of the collection. The result is the sum of these three parts, and it is extraordinary.
The Center, with its public entrance located on the corner of York and Chapel Streets, is a building that occupies its footprint with a lightness of touch. The facade rhythmically punctuates the streetscape between a collection of shops. A series of columns form a concrete frame that holds solid panels of matte steel and large sheets of glass and from the footpath light dances across these different surfaces, reflecting trees and the buildings across the road and the interior can be glimpsed when the angle of the sun is in the right place. The surface of the exterior presents as permeable; both drawing your eye inside while at the same time remaining in constant dialogue with the surroundings. This inside-outside dialogue continues as you enter off the street into the dramatic forecourt, one of two interior courtyards around which the rest of the building is organised. The galleries are laid out on a square grid, with sequences of smaller, interconnected ‘roomlike’ spaces spread out around the courtyards. The freestanding walls of these spaces give the curators the freedom to change the configuration of galleries as necessary. In the current arrangement these spaces have a seductive quality, drawing the visitor in and allowing them to move freely from one gallery to another. You feel completely free; your path through the gallery is not dictated. During the renovation, architects discovered a drawing Kahn had executed a month before he died, which indicated that he had intended the moveable walls between these spaces to be raised above the floor so that they appeared to float. Remodelling the walls and implementing this original Kahn feature constitutes one of the most important changes to the structure of the interior. Also striking is the new white Belgian linen on the walls – crisp in its texture and light. It contrasts beautifully with the refinished woodwork, which now seems to glow (as nearly every reviewer comments) and the new wool carpets made according to the colours and textures specified by Kahn.
The sense of light and the feeling of fluid movement between the galleries comes from the open courtyards, their skylights allow natural light to flood across their vast expanses of matte concrete and white oak panelling and through into the smaller gallery spaces. They also provide spectacular settings for large works (paintings and sculpture), and give the interior a sense of monumental grandeur. A vast freestanding concrete cylinder in one court, containing a central staircase, evokes the sort of monumentality one would associate with the dignity of classical architecture in public spaces. And certainly Kahn was enamoured of the Classical world and of creative responses to that world (he is said to have had a Piranesi print hanging behind his desk). A residency at the American Academy of Rome provided a turning point in the development of Kahn’s own take on modernist architecture. The ancient ruins of Rome and Ostia, as well as those in Greece and Egypt, inspired him to reflect more deeply on the shapes and use of light in classical architecture. Yet the Center is not a temple to art. As you move through the smaller galleries that spread out around the courts, you can see back into those courts to admire the works installed there from different vantage points and perspectives. In this way your breath is caught both by the grandeur and by the experience of close and slow viewing of works in the many intimate spaces. For me, there is a delicious contrast between intimate and grand, which reminds us of the elegance of a more domestic Rome. The very organisation of the Centre around two courtyard spaces echoes Roman domestic architecture, where the front of the house was often dominated by a smaller atrium and the second half of the house centred around a larger peristylum or garden, providing light to the rest of the building acting as a space to display statuary and ornamental art. Kahn would have seen numerous examples of this model at Ostia. But, whatever the perceived classical echoes here, we also know that when he accepted the commission for the Center Kahn had viewed the collection in Mellon’s own home and, based on this, was keen to create a sense of domestic rather of institutional space. The lower ceilings and smaller scale of the gallery spaces laid out around the courts certainly facilitate this, as do the large windows for which Kahn designed wooden shutters (gallery invigilators are asked to use their own judgment in opening and closing these as they see fit).
The reconfiguration of the the interior spaces of the Center means that more art is now on view. There are new juxtapositions between works, and a number of important loans have been integrated within the permanent collection to showcase specific themes. These include immigration (how timely), empire, commerce and the art market. The overall theme driving the new installation is “Britain in the World”, with the broad aim being to present the complex story of the development of British art on the one hand, while setting that development within a wider global context on the other. The display of works by artists from Europe, America or Australia who worked in Britain is carefully nuanced. In itself, the theme reflects broader developments in the discipline of art history (with intensifying discussions around the question of whether art history is or can be global) and the growing interest in narratives of cultural interchange. Thus the very question of what constitutes ‘British’ art is one that has been thoughtfully reappraised. This theme seems extraordinary apt, with Britain having voted to exit the EU and ideas about what constitutes being ‘British’ per se now open to heated debate.
One notable change within the Center is the creation of a long gallery, designed according to one of Kahn’s original working drawings. In this single, gorgeous stretch of salon-style exhibition space more than two hundred works are featured in a floor-to-ceiling installation of paintings and sculpture. There are no wall texts interrupting the hang (details are provided in booklets, or through an app for your smart phone), and throughout the gallery sculptures are boldly displayed free standing, arranged on tables or even placed on the floor. This gallery is utterly magnificent. Those old arguments that a salon style hang restricts close viewing and so impedes a clear engagement with a work have no purchase in this space. Clear groupings of works on the walls mean that at a prosaic level, you can focus on particular sections if you wish, and for the curator, these sections can be changed according to teaching needs without affecting the overall impact of the hang. At another level, it means that various and nuanced dialogues are created between images within one section that can lead to unexpected and delightful discoveries if you look closely. And you do (and you can). The juxtapositions are often surprising, always rewarding. Located at one end of this room is a teaching space, with glass doors that look onto the gallery (and allow the gallery goer to look into the classroom). As a teacher I was enthralled by this ‘room’. It is beautiful in itself, and will enable students to handle and study works of art in the flesh. But more than this, it another one of those permeable spaces that create such a feeling of belonging rather than alienation as a viewer or visitor to the gallery. It operates as a reminder to the visitor that teaching is a priority to which this institution is passionately committed, and as a reminder to the student that studying art and its history is not a backroom, irrelevant operation. It is a dynamic process, at the heart of the humanities, engaged with the world and its history.
On a recent visit, as I wandered through the fourth floor gallery spaces, I overheard a docent discussing aspects of the collection with a group of young visitors. My ears pricked up as I heard her ask whether anyone had visited the Banqueting House in London. There followed awkward silence. On one of my first visits to London, in the 1990’s, I had stood on Whitehall to admire the façade of the Banqueting House, and observe the window on the first floor where in 1649, after years of struggle between the authority of the parliament and the power of the King, Charles I was beheaded. What I did not know at that time, and what the young people behind me did not know, was that the House contained a great hall, the decorated ceiling of which is arguably the most celebrated from seventeenth-century Europe. Commissioned from Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) by Charles himself, to celebrate the reign of his father James I, the ceiling is adorned with two enormous canvases painted over five years and installed in 1639. The ceiling, remarkably still in situ, was one of Rubens’ most ambitious works. It was through this hall, beneath this ceiling, that Charles walked to his death. What the students were being shown was a small preparatory oil sketch depicting Peace Embracing Plenty, part of the ceiling design. This vibrant sketch is a fine window onto Ruben’s style and his body of work; but it is also a perfect example of the way in which one object can tell us much about cultural and even economic interchange, having been painted between 1633 and 1634 by a Flemish artist in Antwerp for a British monarch in London. On my way home that afternoon, my bus drove across the point at which three streets in New Haven converge: Dixwell Ave, Goffe St and Whalley Ave. The streets were named after three of the judges who in 1661 had signed the death warrant of Charles. Pursued by King Charles II and his forces, the men sought refuge in a small town in the North American state of Connecticut: New Haven. Yes, Britain truly is in the world, and in ways that are being explored afresh at Yale.
Felicity Harley McGowan (Lecturer, Yale Divinity School), 2016