Art Institute reopens Modern Wing’s 3rd floor after 7 months

Written By By Kyle Macmillan For Sun-Times Media Posted: 04/15/2014, 10:19am
Array Salvador Dalí. Venus de Milo with Drawers, 1936. | © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2014. COURTESY OF THE ART INSTITUTE

After being closed since early September for repairs and maintenance, the third floor of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 5-year-old Modern Wing will reopen Friday, returning to view about 300 masterworks by Picasso, Matisse and other artists from the first half of the 20th century.

The seven-month closure was necessary to undertake “labor-intensive” modifications to the 264,000-square-foot structure’s complex lighting system, which was allowing inconsistent balances of natural and artificial light from gallery to gallery, spokeswoman Erin Hogan said.

At the same time, the museum decided to take advantage of the down time to carry out routine maintenance, including redoing floors, repainting walls and pedestals, and posting new labels. “A lot of it was finetuning work that we could have spread out, but we decided to do it all at once,” Hogan said.

In keeping with museum policy, Hogan declined to provide the cost of the work but said it was funded by earnings from an $85 million operating endowment established when the $294 million modern wing was completed in 2009. “This is not unanticipated expense in any way.”

Hogan called “totally unfounded” a rumor that circulated at the time of the floor’s shutdown that the building had suffered from water leakage and mold. She also said the lighting changes had nothing to do with defects outlined in a $10 million lawsuit filed in 2010 (and later settled) against Ove Arup & Partners, a London-based engineering firm that collaborated on the project.

The airy, glass-walled Modern Wing, which drew international attention when it opened in May 2009, was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. It houses the museum’s 20th and 21st century holdings, and provides space for its classes and other educational offerings.

A key component of the structure is a translucent rooftop canopy, which has been dubbed the “flying carpet.” The electricity-saving system was designed to allow in precise quantities of natural light (too much can be harmful to many kinds of artworks), which is constantly adjusted and balanced by an interior illumination system.

But variable amounts of natural light were coming into the galleries, Hogan said. To fix the problem, screens were placed below the overhead canopy, and light sensors that control the system were moved from outside to inside. She said the physical alterations will be imperceptible to most visitors.

Piano was consulted in advance, but his firm was not involved with the work. “We are in touch with him all the time,” Hogan said.

While the third floor was closed, nearly 100 masterworks normally on view were shown at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The Kimbell show was announced in December 2012.

“We’ve had a long relationship with the Kimbell, and when we scheduled the work and knew that the works were coming down, it coincided with the Kimbell’s opening of their Renzo Piano building, so it just seemed like fortuitous timing,” Hogan said.

The works shown in Texas will be back on view with slightly different configurations in certain galleries, along with the addition of several recent acquisitions, such as “Object With Number 1” (1932) by Joaquin Torres-Garcia, one of the fathers of South American modernism.

“This was about taking the opportunity to augment what we had done before, and because we had a little time, rethink some areas and bring out different things to tell a slightly different story,” Stephanie D’Alessandro, curator of modern art, said. “There will be some things that will be landmarks, that will be very familiar, but there are surprises in it as well.”

Some of the returning works have undergone routine conservation, and certain paintings have been rehung with frames that more closely match those originally intended by the artists. In addition, D’Alessandro has added wall panels and other visual aids.

“There are wall texts and graphics,” she said, “to sort of situate people in the moment that these things were made — a lot of contextualization — just because we learned that people want to learn more about these objects: the artists that made them, how they were made, why they are special.”

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