The closure will expedite the restoration of the atrium skylight, an important element of architect I.M. Pei’s original design for the building, which first opened in 1978. When it reopens this summer, the East Building also will have new restrooms on the mezzanine, ground and concourse floors; a more-accessible entrance with new double doors; and an elevator lobby within the large auditorium on the concourse level. The renovations are part of ongoing work that began in 2019 with plans to update the galleries on the west side of the building and improve accessibility, in addition to restoring the skylight.
The East Building was closed for 15 months from March 2020 to June 2021 because of the pandemic and construction. When the building reopened last summer, the skylight was covered by a protective platform and visitors continue to enter the building through scaffolding while the main entrance remains closed. The skylight restoration, which was delayed during the early days of the pandemic, began in June 2020 with the removal of a massive Alexander Calder mobile that had hung from the ceiling. In total, the restoration will entail replacing 23,000 square feet of glass.
Originally, the National Gallery hoped to accommodate visitors during the process, but the prolonged pandemic closure showed how shuttering the building could significantly expedite the pace of renovations. They anticipate the closure will reduce the time it takes to complete the project by half.
During renovations, several works have gone off view. Ellsworth Kelly’s installation of paintings “Color Panels for a Large Wall” (1978) and Roy Lichtenstein’s 13-foot-long canvas “Painting with Statue of Liberty” (1983) have been removed, while works such as Richard Serra’s Five Plates, Two Poles (1971) remain in the building, but under protective enclosures.
“While the building is in the final phase of renovations to its public spaces, the visitor experience has been diminished by construction and displacement of key works of art,” National Gallery director Kaywin Feldman said in a statement. “Closing to the public temporarily allows us to bring the full splendor of the East Building to visitors much sooner than if we were to remain open during renovations.”
The announcement comes as museums around Washington have adjusted their hours because of covid-19 related staff shortages coinciding with the spread of the omicron variant. Most Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo have been operating on a reduced schedule, and the National Air and Space Museum and Anacostia Community Museum have closed temporarily through Jan. 17, when the Smithsonian plans to reassess the changes. Renovations also are putting other museum buildings out of commission, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which closed for two years in August, and the Air and Space Museum, which, covid-19 concerns aside, will close in March for at least six months of renovations.
The National Gallery’s East Building has had other closures in the past several years. From 2013 to 2016, multiple galleries were shuttered for a major renovation of the north part of the building that added 12,250 square feet of exhibition space and increased the number of collection items on view from 350 to 500. Featuring art from after 1900, the building has works by artists such as Edward Hopper, Alma Thomas, Piet Mondrian and Eva Hesse on view.
After the building reopens this summer, it will feature “The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler,” an exhibition opening July 3 that will bring together Whistler’s three famous “Symphony in White” paintings of Hiffernan for the first time in the U.S., and “The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900,” which opens July 10, and will look at how artists have used the double format to explore psychological themes.