ATLANTA - The revamped High Museum of Art in Atlanta has become as much about the experience as the art.
The museum recently completed a $109.3 million construction program that more than doubled gallery space and allowed the institution to expand its exhibition possibilities.
The new wings open Saturday with an exhibition of work by American painter Andrew Wyeth, an exhibition by Renzo Piano (the architect behind the High expansion), and an expanded display of the High's contemporary, African and works-on-paper collections.
"What we're trying to do here is figure out exactly how to be a really great art museum in the early 21st century," said Michael Shapiro, the High's director. "There's not a book on that in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. It's something you have to figure out as you go. But there is a hunger, an appetite, to become more than what were are, more than what we have been."
Modeled after a European village, the High expansion encompasses buildings erected around a central piazza. Using transparency, light and the aesthetics of empty space as key concepts, Mr. Piano's design developed on the idea of bringing the outside into a gallery environment.
"Nature is what touched me," Mr. Piano said. "Atlanta is a garden city. It's a place where you plant ivy and in a few weeks it has taken over. That inspired me. There is also that sense of humanity that is a universal need, not just in Atlanta, but cities in general."
Mr. Piano said the challenge with the High expansion was finding shapes and lines that would thematically and aesthetically link the Richard Meier-designed High building, which opened in 1983, and the more imposing Woodruff Arts Center. The result is a series of cubical buildings augmented with large sheets of glass and aluminum ribbons that appear to loop over the roofline.
Inside, that theme is continued with hand-molded gypsum vaulting on the ceiling and banded hardwood floors. The buildings are connected by a series of carefully placed and easily accessed glass breezeways. Mr. Piano compared the Meier building to a delicate ballerina and said much care was taken to incorporate new design elements.
In a year, the 10,000-square-foot Anne Cox Chambers wing, an intimate gallery space at the head of the piazza, will become home to the Louvre Atlanta exhibition.
The three-year instillation will feature hundreds of works from the famous French museum's unparalleled collection.
Mr. Shapiro said that the High serves a community that stretches from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., and wants to find programming, such as the Louvre project, that appeals to art lovers outside of the metro Atlanta area.
"That is part of the challenge, reaching out to those smaller communities, especially in Georgia," he said. "It's something, admittedly, that we're still figuring out."
Though most patrons and patronage come from inside the Atlanta loop, Mr. Shapiro sees great promise in the synergetic alchemy of desire, design and enthusiasm.
If the abstract ideals have a symbol, he said, it's found in the serenity of the piazza, lined by the museum's buildings and a Roy Lichtenstein house sculpture.
"I think the magic is in the piazza and it's really yet to unfold," he said. "That seems to be the center of the nuclear fission we're trying to capture."
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