Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu
Hey, all you big-shot art repositories around the USA, are you hearing some footsteps these days? Is something gaining on you? It might just be those footfalls are made by Yale University Art Gallery, whose gala public reopening and ribbon-cutting of its renovated and expanded galleries on 12/12/12 announced the birth of a new era in, at the very least, the arts scene of Connecticut, if not all of New England.
Recently appointed Yale President Peter Salovey didn't mince words, bypassing New York and Boston altogether in telling the crowd, "You can now walk into this gallery for free and see a collection that rivals anything in Paris, London and Madrid."
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called Yale'sart gallery the "center and heart of New Haven," and said that it is fittingly located on the city's longest thoroughfare (Chapel Street). He then riffed on how this is in keeping with what former Yale president and baseball commissioner (and father of actor Paul) Bart Giamatti said about cities "not only ennobling us but perfecting us."
Mary Miller, current Yale College dean and renowned scholar of ancient arts of the Americas, perhaps best summed up the unanimous feeling by unabashedly rhapsodizing over the sudden explosion ofarton the walls — the renovation has tripled gallery space, allowing for 4,000 art works to be displayed at any given time (out of a collection of 200,000 works).
"I thought I knew this museum, but as I walked through the galleries, I found myself saying, 'Where did all this art come from?,'" she said, adding with a laugh, "Yes, I know, it came from storage."
Miller added that nearly 99 percent of all art objects made by humans from the dawn of civilization have been lost, making those that remain all the more precious and suggested we "look at each work of art through that prism."
The "proud papa" of the newly renovated gallery, Director Jock Reynolds, could just smile and hand out metaphoric cigars to well-wishers, lavishly praising all parties, not the least of which was Ennead Architects, the firm that completed the 14-year project, and all the donors (nearly every hall, terrace, alcove, cubby hole, nook, cranny, bench and window is named for some wealthy benefactor).
In short, this was one of those occasions when the joyful rhetoric could not be laid on thick enough, because the Yale University Art Gallery, founded in 1832 by John Trumbull, is now one of the crown jewels of the nation's art scene. The new space covers four floors that run a block and a half along Chapel Street, and connect the Louis Kahn-designed building (where visitors enter) to the 1866 Street Hall, allowing for breathtaking views of Yale campus from the "bridge" that travels over High Street. Not only does this increase the amount of art available for viewing, it adds classrooms and separate study rooms for the coins and medals collection, as well as for the prints, drawings and photographs.
The rambling expanse of the floors and the windows and terraces and circular staircases makes visitors feel less hermetically sealed than at window-less museums like the Guggenheim or the Whitney. Galleries are arranged like a timeline through human history, the foundation laid on the first floor with the stunning hall filled with Assyrian reliefs with cuneiform inscriptions, Sumerian, Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian and Byzantine objects dating back thousands of years. Visitors then travel through the Renaissance, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and so on to the present day on the top floor, where the new exhibition "The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America" is installed.
The masters leap out at you from every gallery wall (Hans Holbein, Frans Hals, Bosch, Rubens, Donatello, Gericault, Stubbs, Sargent, Monet, Cezanne, Hopper, etc.). Breaking up all the familiar religious themes that dominated art for hundreds of years — some of the crucifixion scenes are bloodier than Mel Gibson's film version — was a single small painting by Sano di Pietro, "Saint Anthony Abbot Tormented by Demons" from 1435; with its weird perspective, its elongated bodies and its creepy demons, the painting seems to hand the baton across the centuries to El Greco and the birth of modern art.
But getting there takes you through several more galleries, which include every artist you could really expect to see in a major museum, including van Gogh's "The Night Café" (1888), whose power draws you up short in its new setting. Formerly housed in a plain black frame, it now sports an elaborate wooden border and is mounted across from one of the windows on High Street, allowing visitors to view it in natural light at different times of day.
The reopening of Yale University Art Gallery provides an embarrassment of riches to art lovers. It's as if you've been invited to a banquet that is serving all of your favorite foods but you are cursed by only possessing one stomach. The best way to approach it, then, is to pace yourself. Take one floor per visit, or one gallery, and then come back repeatedly until you've experienced them all. And then come back and do it again. Eventually, you might even feel as if you've experienced the entire 10,000-year history of human civilization.