There was nowhere to grow but up: The new Tower Galleries will be created out of spaces between the ceilings of existing galleries and the skylights. They will be 23-foot-high hexagons. While the gallery has changed the height of its ceiling before — it is raising the ceiling of one tower for its blockbuster “Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes” exhibition in May — the ceilings will permanently stretch to their highest limit after the renovation.
The West Building, created in 1937, was renovated from 2007 to 2009. In that renovation, galleries were closed in groups, but the building remained opened to visitors and many permanent exhibitions remained on display. In this case, the East Building will close for three years, except for the atrium and office buildings. “We have to do them all at one time,” Ziska said. “That’s how the [East Building] was constructed.”
The East Building, which opened in 1978, allowed the National Gallery to rebrand itself as a much more modern museum. It created an architectural space that enabled the National Gallery to house larger-scale paintings and exhibition pieces that the West Building could not accommodate. The East Building, and the underground connection between the two buildings, created service space for restaurants, gift shops and lectures.
The award-winning I.M. Pei-designed building was a radical departure from John Russell Pope’s conservative West Building design, and it created not only a more flexible gallery space but also a visual imprint that helped the National Gallery attract visitors and international attention. Last year, the East Building accounted for 929,646 of the total 4.2 million visitors.
The National Gallery is also completing an $80 million congressionally funded renovation to the East Building’s marble facade. These repairs began in 2011 and are expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The renovation announcement comes as the National Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles discuss a possible collaboration, first reported by the New York Times. The National Gallery would help with programming at MOCA, which is struggling financially, and the National Gallery could exhibit part of its collection there during the renovation.
“Programming opportunities are being discussed between the National Gallery of Art and L.A. MOCA,” Ziska said. “Our board has not made any formal decision or voted on this,” she said.
David Montgomery contributed to this report.