A fair trade-off?
Probably not for fans of the gallery’s growing collection of modern art who won’t be able to view it for three years. But according to gallery officials, repairs make closure of the 35-year-old building essential.
“We did think briefly about the possibility of a kind of staggered closing of the galleries, but that was very hard to do in this open kind of a building. In the end it was just much simpler to close the galleries,” said Harry Cooper, the gallery’s curator and head of modern art.
“This just figures into a long-range planning structure,” said Earl A. Powell, director of the gallery. “There has to be a lot of deconstruction of interior spaces — new elevators, new smoke evacuations. . . . [The building] is seven stories of vertical work and a much more complex building than [the West Building].”
The gallery has known for years that it will need to close its doors to renovate. Since 1999, the gallery has had a multi-phase Master Renovations Plan to update infrastructure in its East and West buildings. The plan includes updates for heating systems, elevators, security systems, fire protection, ventilation and air-conditioning.
But unlike the neoclassical West building, designed by John Russell Pope in 1937, the East Building must close all of its galleries to renovate, a quirk of I.M. Pei’s modern, geometrical design. The galleries in Pope’s building can be cornered off, but the odd, angular spaces in the Pei-designed building make renovations more complicated.
The gallery isn’t the only Washington museum to close for massive renovations in recent memory. In 2000, the Smithsonian announced that the Old Patent Office Building, which at the time housed the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, would undergo a two-year renovation that became a six-year renovation, costing close to $300 million. The renovation was overseen by Hartman-Cox architects, which is also overseeing the National Gallery’s renovation. The Renwick Gallery also announced last month that it will close for two years to renovate, starting next year.
But, as any architect will tell you, closures are the optimal time for ambitious renovations.
“Perry Chin [an associate of Pei’s] said if ‘you’re doing all of that, you might want to think about making new galleries in the two towers,’ ” Powell said. “We could do this, quite easily, while all the light and safety [renovations] closed the building.”