ANNE & FRANK GOODYEAR (Ph.Ds in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin) are the co-directors of the Bowdoin College Art Museum. Prior to Bowdoin, they spent 12 years curating prints and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. I met with them in Anne’s office, carved out underneath the ground of a McKim, Mead, and White building that was designed in 1894. In 2007, the building underwent a $ 20.8 million dollar renovation designed by Machado Silvetti.
SDB: What do you see as the relationship between a piece of architecture and the collection that it holds?
AG: In my view the most important thing that a building does for a museum of art is change its relationship to the community of people it serves. Just a year ago, Frank and I were at an Association of Art Museum Directors meeting. Glenn Lowry [Director of MoMA] made an extremely compelling point that I have been meditating on since that time. He commented that in his view, the 20th century museum was about collecting and the 21st century museum was about programming.
We are interested in anything that museums do to contribute to a notion of transparency about their collections and to create a sense of permeability between the internal envelope and the domain outside, interventions that change and hopefully enhance the social role of the museum and the ways it can serve people.
The original museum represents the United States on the cusp of verging into modernism. It’s interesting that when the Walker sisters endowed the building, they endowed a neoclassical building, but one of the first artworks they gave was a watercolor by Winslow Homer, who was right down the road and beginning to rethink art, photography and modern subjects. We saw an opportunity with the Machado Silvetti extension of the building to complete that movement into the contemporary era. I love that this building talks about the relationship between art and culture in the U.S.
SDB: Who decided the building should be renovated and why?
FG: I think one of the things that prompted this was the fact that the building was not climate controlled for a long, long time. If you don’t have a climate controlled museum, you can’t get external loans. It’s very difficult to conceive of, much less execute, ambitious exhibition projects when the building is not suitable to host borrowed works of art.
SDB: What are your impressions of the renovation?
FG: One could describe the original McKim, Mead, and White building as a kind of jewelry box. Yet, what the 21st century museum is about is actually busting beyond the walls of that jewelry box. I think the Machado Silvetti addition is really successful in many respects: while it honors the original structure, it achieves a sense of openness and accessibility that is really important, not only in this community but also in terms of what role museums play in civic life today.
AG: There was a coalition of architectural historians that said, “No, you cannot tear the McKim Mead and White apart.” So all of a sudden Machado Silvetti had this really interesting remit which was to renovate the building but only by impacting the physical structure as little as possible. I think they did a really extraordinarily effective job on following through on that. And what I really admire about the building is quite simply that it works. It’s easy to find, it’s a building in which the architecture enhances what we’re doing without getting in the way of what we’re doing. It doesn’t leak. It’s like the ego of the architect faded a little a bit.
FG: One question is, what are you spending your money on? Here, 20 million dollars was spent and gallery space expanded by 66%. We have 66% more space to exhibit art. This building hits it out of the park with its commitment to the preservation of the past and the willingness to open itself up to the campus and the community to create more usable space and really beautiful usable space.
SDB: What are the incentives for other institutions—like the Whitney or the Menil Drawing Institute—to renovate or build anew?
FG: I think that in the 21st century great museum buildings will have attractive galleries and all sorts of spaces to display works of all kinds and scales—from intimate little prints to gargantuan installations—so you need a building that does this. Great architects can imagine spaces in which a variety of things can happen. But you also are looking for buildings that are destinations, and there’s no question that certain great museum buildings are some of the most iconic works of architecture in a particular community that help to forge, or enhance, that city’s sense of its identity.
AG: I think architects help us envision how we want to live our lives. They create spaces that both speak to who we already are and connect with where the future is going. That dual dimension of vision—that it meets you where you are, but takes you to some place where you want to go—is in my mind one of the most exciting things about architecture. I think that what is really exciting about architecture meeting the museum world is that museums also exist to foster and preserve vision. Museums are supposed to be creative incubators. The idea that an architect can come to an environment that is predicated upon both preserving examples of great imagination but also hopefully stimulating new ideas is thrilling.
In a weird way, now that we’re talking, the word “architecture” is starting to remind me a little of the word “curator.” We see the word “curate” everywhere now and I think it has come to mean not just caring for a collection but sifting through information and presenting it in a way that is meaningful. People curate sweater stacks at Anne Taylor, but they also curate information for a blog. People talk about information architects or project architects now, so I think this idea that the architect creates a structure in which we can establish community—to me that’s the most important thing.