An Entrance for All

September 28th, 2010 by Charles Siebert

How a museum’s renovation has done more than just restore its exterior.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Nearly every afternoon, I pour myself a coffee, grab a book and writing notebook, and sit for a few hours in front of the Brooklyn Museum. If it sounds a bit strange to be spending that much time outside of a museum rather than in it, I should first explain that for the past 25 years I have lived in an apartment building directly across the street from it and thus long ago lost any sense of urgency about getting into particular exhibitions inside. Still, my afternoon forays there have less to do with proximity than with the 2004 refurbishment of its front entrance. As I’ve come to see it, the renovation is a dynamic and deeply responsible work of architecture; it has made the museum’s exterior every bit as compelling as what’s contained within while also helping to revive a surrounding neighborhood that had long been in decline.

Refurbishing a venerable old landmark such as the Brooklyn Museum -- a classic, block-long, Beaux Arts edifice built by the storied New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White -- is a huge responsibility in and of itself. In front, the forbidding upper frieze is lined with life-sized statues of great figures from antiquity -- Moses, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, and so on -- and bolstered by six massive columns; the overall effect is one of open defiance to anyone who might fool with the place. Indeed, the only prior alteration since the museum first opened its doors in 1897 occurred in 1939, when the original sprawling stone staircase was removed due to wear and tear; four stolid bronze front doors were installed in its place, imbuing the building with an even greater air of mausoleum-like inviolability.

And then with the opening of the new entrance in April of 2004, Moses and company suddenly felt a fresh breeze beneath their heavy granite robes. The new design by James Stewart Polshek -- best known at the time for another addition to a classic Beaux Arts landmark, the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History -- features a green-glass canopy of outwardly cascading semicircular panels that at once evoke and erase the memory of the original sprawling front staircase. Beneath that canopy, the bronze doors have been replaced by a glass front that exposes the bases of the six soaring columns above, a reminder that even the most vaulted forms of expression must stem from stout underpinnings. A wooden amphitheater frames the far left side of the pavilion, rimmed with cherry trees where people can sit and watch rhythmic jets of water spout from a grand new fountain. The whole effect is as airily modern and playful as its classical forbearer was weighty and stern; it’s a juxtaposition that – judging by the comments I overheard in the days after the project’s unveiling – can seem a bit stark. As one man put it, on emerging from the nearby subway stairs and then pausing to take in the scene: “It looks like a spaceship crashed into the Parthenon.”

I too felt deeply ambivalent about the design at first. At night, its glassy superstructure appears to dissolve and dazzle in a play of surrounding street, fountain and building lights. By day, however, the green panels and metal-banded walkway all refract the light and fall flat against the air. Still, inspired works of art often require repeated visits to be fully appreciated, a mandate that I’ve been uniquely qualified to meet. Working as I do at home each day, I’d repeatedly venture over in the afternoon or early evening and take Mr. Polshek up on his tacit invitation to just hang out in front of one of the world’s greatest art institutes, feeling at once the vibes of the culture stored within the building and the one that swirls each day around it.

This is the genius of the new entrance’s design, as I’ve come to understand simply from sitting out there each day -- how a formerly privileged and private space has been transformed into an intimate and all-inclusive public one. Neighborhood children dart and scream around the fountain’s edge while parents and an assortment of area residents and museum visitors sit on the amphitheater steps or lie sprawled on the front lawns. Various community activities now regularly take place there: sketching and painting classes, high school band practices, hip-hop dance and karate exhibitions, coordinated drumming and chorale-singing sessions, cheerleading squads, skateboard and wall-jumping contests. As such, the museum’s new entryway not only entices you to experience its vast holdings within, but it also reflects a deep sense of responsibility to the surrounding neighborhood.

Lately, several newspaper articles have noted that the museum’s open and inviting new entranceway and attendant “First Saturday” program – a monthly night of free music, dancing and access to various exhibits for the general public -- have done nothing to increase its core membership. It isn’t clear whether or not this is due to the struggling economy, but whatever the cause, such assessments miss the long-term picture of what’s unfolding, a development that I think all of those granite-robed seers up along the frieze would heartily support.

I’ve now sat out front enough to appreciate the energy that the mere proximity to a great cultural institution stokes. I’ve also attended enough “First Saturdays” and watched people, especially children, swirl and make merry amid the paintings and sculptures and photographs; from time to time, they even stop to absorb, if only by osmosis, the essence of what they are seeing. What’s being gained isn’t so much an increase in core membership, but rather a potential crop of new artists whom future members will flock to see. Great art, no doubt, needs great exhibition space. But it also demands the nurturing of young talent, and what better place to begin that process than in one’s own backyard.

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”