Watching The Norton Museum of Art go through its closing, demolition, and reconstruction has been an exercise in impatient art anxiety. How will it look? What great treasures will be exhibited? And save that tree!
After three years, the wait is over and all those questions have been answered. The building has been smartly and elegantly reconfigured with a nod to the past and a huge gift box for the future.
“If we were a car, we would’ve been a 12-year-old Volkswagen, and someone handed us a Lamborghini,” Museum Director Hope Alswang said at a preview that included a talk from rock star architect Lord Norman Foster who has also designed London’s Wembley Stadium and New York’s Hearst Tower.
The new Norton now has eight new exhibitions, a $100 million addition that builds in 12,000 square feet of gallery space, new classrooms, a restaurant that overlooks a new sculpture garden that used to be a parking lot, and a 210-seat auditorium. All the parking has now been moved to a lot across the highway.
Over the years the original building, built in 1941, had been added onto in fits and starts. The former entrance which faced the sea had been moved to face south and now west towards Dixie Highway. The new grand entryway has a huge 43 foot high aluminum overhang, a reflecting pool that houses a clever sculpture by Claes Oldenburg called “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” and an overhang cutaway to accommodate that enormous 80 year-old banyan tree.
“We had quite the time getting that tilted sculpture installed,” said Curator Cheryl Brutvan. “It is very heavy and in the middle of a pool.”
Tall white doors punctuated with light friendly circles lead into the new entryway. To the left is the new Great Hall whose soaring ceiling and circular skylight give a lovely glow to the room. A new artwork by artist Pei White, a tapestry called “Eikón” stretches 40 feet across. It’s a real twist – a woven cotton work that depicts crinkled foil. The other side of the Hall has floor-to-ceiling windows to see the big tree.
“The tree was our protagonist!” Lord Foster proclaimed.
Also inside the 3,600-square-foot Great Hall is a grand piano, shelves with art books, a coffee and snack bar and a mid-century style lounge with grey and yellow seating.
Through the Hall is a clear shot view of the plant and fountain filled original courtyard, part of the smart new design that has kept sightlines and history intact.
After walking a maze of both original and new rooms filled with embellished sound suits from Nick Cave – who will be giving an artists talk on March 8th – and modernist paintings by Picasso, the most beautiful new space is the 150-foot-long indoor sculpture gallery and the gorgeous new outdoor sculpture garden. Multiple sculptures dot the new room that gives a clear windowed view to the garden. Almost an acre in size, the garden has a large lawn for events, a straight shot view to the bay, lush landscaping and some new sculptures such as Antony Gormley’s “Total Strangers,” cast-iron, life-size human figures facing in opposite directions on the lawn. Walking paths and benches beckon viewers to stroll and take it all in.
“It used to be our south parking lot, which is insane,” says Brutvan. “The garden is easily our most impressive addition.”
At the far end of the lawn is the new restaurant, a sleek 165-seat fine-dining eatery that has outdoor terrace seating, private dining rooms in the back and a bar with seating. A neutral palette of grey, white and aluminum keep the vibe serene. Across the way is a multipurpose dining/event room with a mural made of floral designs and 15,000 sheets of real gold-leaf. The menu is moderately priced ($12 to $28) from chef David Schiraldo, with seafood plates – ahi tuna tartare and red snapper crudo, and sandwiches, burgers, salmon, chicken paillard and more healthy fare.
A new commissioned artwork installation graces the new winding gray staircase that ascends to the museum’s second and third floors. Entitled “I Remember Ceramic Castles, Mermaids and Japanese Bridges,” from artist Rob Wynne, this dotty glass mirrored work has hand poured letters that spell out the title and then thousands more glass designs that resemble silver and cerulean blue sea spray. It’s a gleaming, reflective work that shines in playful, unexpected ways.
Upstairs is the museum’s still growing Chinese collection with over 400 objects in five new galleries and a period of 5,000 years. A new photo gallery debuts with “Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography,” a collection of photograph-like images made without cameras.
“Hope Alswang has kind of let me run wild, letting me beef up the collection,” says longtime photography curator Tim Wride. “Now we can show the whole history of photography and fit a big chunk of it on our walls.”
A new controversial exhibit – “Nina Chanel Abney: Neon,” (Feb. 9-June 25), is a stylistically graphic series of bright colored paintings that address racial inequality, discrimination and sexism. The work features very explicit scenes of sexuality at clubs and in street scenes. Chanel Abney will give a talk about her work on March 22.
“It’s bolder than what we normally show,” says Brutvan “but we are going with it.”
Many artist talks, films, concerts, ballet performances and workshops are lined up for the coming months. After a three year wait, the Norton has good reason to celebrate in style.
The Norton Museum of Art new address is 1450 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, FL 33401, and will be open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The museum is closed Wednesdays and open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on Fridays. Admission costs $5-$18, free entry on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Norton’s new restaurant hours are 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; closed on Wednesdays, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on Fridays.
The weekly free Art After Dark program has been moved from Thursdays to Fridays, now from 5 to 10 p.m.
For information on exhibits, monthly events, and more, visit www.norton.org.