Museums USA

A ‘quiet and reserved’ new wing for Saint Louis Art Museum

David Chipperfield-designed wing was inspired by a need to show more of the collection

David Chipperfield’s new East Building sits respectfully next to the Saint Louis Art Museum’s 1904 Cass Gilbert-designed Beaux Arts Main Building

The Saint Louis Art Museum’s East Building, which has been designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, opens on 29 June, increasing the 109-year-old Missouri institution’s gallery space by a third. Brent Benjamin, the museum’s director, says the driving force behind the $130m expansion was “the need and desire to accommodate more of the collection—it will be a revelation for many people how extensive and fine our holdings are.”

The Midwest museum’s collection includes more than 40 works by Max Beckmann, one of the largest in a public collection. The German artist moved to St Louis after the Second World War at the invitation of the museum’s then-director, who secured a university teaching post for him in the city. The works came to the museum as a bequest from a leading local collector.

The museum has been actively acquiring post-war German art to complement its Beckmanns, and many take pride of place in the spacious, top-lit galleries in the East Building. Works by Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger and others, will hang for a year before making way for temporary exhibitions. In the collections galleries of the new wing, visitors will find around 90 works of post-war American art, including Jackson Pollock’s Number 3, 1950, a large abstract in oil, enamel and aluminium paint, and work by Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly and Mark Rothko.

Meanwhile, in the museum’s Cass Gilbert-designed Beaux Arts-style Main Building, which was originally built as the centrepiece to the St Louis World’s Fair and boasts a central space inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of

Caracalla, new galleries have been created and existing ones reinstalled. More than 1,500 works, ranging from European paintings, photography and drawings to the art of Asia, Africa and the ancient world are now on show. “A third [of the collection] has not be been on view for 20 years”, Benjamin says. Items unseen for decades include ancient Chinese bronzes, a particular strength of the collection. There is also a new gallery of Korean art. The encyclopaedic nature of the holdings was enriched by one man, Morton D. May, the heir to the May Department Store fortune who donated more than 5,100 works of art, or nearly 20% of the collection. May bequeathed the Beckmanns, as well as much of the museum’s Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art. Other significant donors include the Pulitzer family, starting with Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher whose St Louis Post-Dispatch made his name and fortune.

Planned temporary exhibitions include one in 2014 on the role of painting and photography in the shaping of 19th-century French national identity, co-organised with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Another show planned for 2015 will feature the paintings of George Caleb Bingham, a Missouri artist who is well represented in the museum’s collection. Co-organised with the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, the Bingham show is due to travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Working on a high

Benjamin is not expecting to see a big increase in visitor numbers post expansion, however. “[The museum] has offered free general admission for well over a century thanks to the generous taxpayers of St Louis and the region,” he says. “We expect a boost in attendance in the first eight to ten months but we anticipate that it will settle down within a year.” The population of the Greater St Louis metropolitan area is around 2.5 million and annual attendance before construction work began was already “very high per capita” at 400,000 to 500,000 a year, he says.

Improving the quality of visitors’ experience, modernising the original building and marrying new and old were key parts of the project. Benjamin praises Chipperfield’s “deep respect” for the Gilbert building and his sensitivity to its setting, a park bigger than New York’s Central Park. The extension, which is built into a hillside, is largely underground. Clad in polished concrete panels that incorporate Missouri River stones, the wing features views of the surrounding park, a restaurant and provides facilities museum visitors now expect, including a car park. Another first for the museum is a “real coat check”, Benjamin says. He praises the “wonderfully quiet and reserved” setting for art that the architect has created in the new wing. The galleries have distinctive coffered ceiling but are otherwise pristine white cubes.

The British artist Andy Goldsworthy has created Stone Sea, a site-specific work for a narrow space between the old and new buildings. Twenty-five tightly packed, ten-foot-high arches made of native limestone rise in a sunken courtyard. The artist was

inspired by the fact that the sedimentary rock was formed when the region was a shallow sea in Prehistoric times. (The city is already known for another arch, made of steel, and designed in the 1960s by Eero Saarinen.) How did St Louis’s new arches come about? “Andy was in town because of a commission that did not come about,” Benjamin recalls. “And he said, ‘I want that space.’” The work, which is due to be completed for the new wing’s grand opening on 29 June, is “really intriguing, from the outside, above, within and below,” Benjamin says.

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