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The Addison Gets a Makeover

The Addison Gets a Makeover
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No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me why a traditional New England prep school boasts an art museum that would be the envy of most colleges, but the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts is just that. The Addison has been closed since 2008 for a $22 million makeover and will re-open to the public on September 7, so I jumped at the chance earlier this week for a preview tour.

The first thing I did when I arrived on campus was to walk twice around the outside of the museum trying to figure out what was new. I couldn’t, and that’s by design. The Addison was designed by architect Charles Platt and opened in 1931. It is a handsome, though not very exciting Greek Revival temple of art with blind, bricked-up windows (I’m assuming to provide more wall space and less sunlight). The three-story, 13,770 square foot addition designed by Centerbrook Architects of Connecticut is so deferential to the original that it is barely noticeable.

The renovation has improved lighting and security, but it has not added appreciably to the museum’s exhibition space. The new spaces knitted seamlessly into the old museum house storage and exhibition prep on the ground floor, a new art library and museum learning center on the first floor, and museum offices on the second floor. Glass artist Dale Chihuly’s “Floats,” beachball-size bubbles of black glass inspired by the buoys used by Japanese fishermen, have been placed outside on the flat, sedum-covered roof of the expansion and are only visible from the new learning center and the offices above.

The Addison Gallery of American Art was started by alumni Thomas Cochran and was named for Keturah Addison Cobb, the mother of a woman Cochran admired. The renovation and expansion were necessary because over the span of 80 years the museum’s collection has grown from 400 objects to 16,750, half of which compromise an important collection of photographs, and the staff has expanded accordingly from three to 18.

To celebrate the grand re-opening, curators Susan Faxon and Allison Kemmerer have installed more than 300 works from the museum’s permanent collection as Inside, Outside, Upstairs, Downstairs: The New Addison. Re-installations of permanent collections are usually of interest only to critics, art historians and other curators, but Inside, Outside, Upstairs, Downstairs is an unusual and wonderfully entertaining exception to the yawn rule.

Susan Faxon, curator of pre-1950 art, and Allison Kemmerer, curator of post-1950 art and photography, have essentially played a game with the collection, thematically grouping works based sometimes on form, sometimes on content without regard to medium, style, or period. It makes for a lively and surprising visual adventure. You can either play the game of trying to figure out what all the works in a given gallery have in common (Sometimes it’s as simple as urban imagery, industrial subjects, geometry or portraiture), or you can just go treasure hunting for the unexpected and memorable.

Whenever I wander through a museum filled with eclectic art, I usually come away with just a handful of works emblazoned on my visual memory. In the case of my tour of the Addison, one of the works that impressed itself upon my mind’s eye is the gloriously incongruous Thomas Eakins portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland, a late 19th century portrait of a scientist that appears incredibly contemporary owing to the gilt plank frame upon which Eakins inscribed formulae and equations from the professor’s notebook.

I was also impressed by Abelardo Morell’s camera obscura photograph of a Lawrence, Massachusetts, mill reflected in the corporate board room that he turned into a camera; photographer William Christenberry’s sculptural model, “House near Marion, Alabama”; and Frank Stella’s “East Broadway,” a very early stripe painting that captures Stella right out of Princeton and headed down the road to becoming a master minimalist. What all three of these works have in common, beyond architecture, is that they spoke to me somehow of containment.

As I departed the Addison via the ground floor, I caught tantalizing glimpses of large-scale prints by Phillips Academy alums Stella and Carroll Dunham that made we want to return very soon. Inside, Outside, Upstairs, Downstairs is only up in its entirety through early October, so get to Andover in September if you possibly can.

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