by Wesley Ratko
More than 50 people turned out to the Woodmere Art Museum’s Kuch Gallery Thursday night for the first community open house about the museum’s initial plans for its expansion and to meet the architect, Matthew Baird, who the museum has hired to design that effort.
Museum Director Bill Valerio explained that a sharp increase in the number of visitors to the museum in recent years, coupled with the increasing age of the building (the Kuch Gallery was completed in 1910) and the limitations imposed by a lack of space, has prompted museum officials to begin planning for a long-term expansion project.
“That growth compels us to work with an architect,” Valerio said.
Valerio said that much of the museum’s collection of art is in storage – only 3% of it can be exhibited at any given time – and that even the museum’s storage space is constrained. The long-range plan will address the limited gallery and storage space as well as the 200-space parking lot and individual bathroom facilities.
“We want to reconnect with our landscape,” Valerio said, “with a focus on reuse and a repurposing of the existing structure.”
Baird, an architect based in New York, was one of eight firms that responded to the museum’s request for proposals issued in September 2011. Valerio, who described the Woodmere as a museum for Philadelphia artists, said one of their most important criteria was to find a firm either located in Philadelphia or led by someone with strong ties to the city.
Chestnut Hill native Matthew Baird was just the architect they were looking for.
“Matthew’s a rock star,” Valerio said. “He’s an architect of extraordinary creativity.” Valerio praised Baird for his ability to balance creative flair with a sensitivity about what the museum means to the community.
Baird himself, a soft-spoken and understated professional, spent an hour walking the audience through images of his work, the highlights of which include a remodeling of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the Spring Island Trust and Nature Center in South Carolina’s “Lowcountry” just south of Charleston, and a 2010 exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art titled “Rising Currents,” which addressed the impact of rising sea levels and presented innovative solutions to counter their impact on lower Manhattan.
Baird told the crowd that he felt the relocation of the Barnes Foundation from Dr. Albert Barnes former home in Lower Merion into downtown Philadelphia was a good thing for the city, but that it represented a loss of the ability to see art in a domestic setting. He said the Woodmere Museum was poised to fill the void left by that move.
“This should be a house for art,” he said.
Baird’s approach to the museum’s expansion will focus primarily on three elements: continuity, transparency, and clarity. Baird said his goal is to reconnect the house to the landscape, something the Woodmere’s founder Charles Knox Smith intended from the outset.
With an overhead sketch of the property displayed, Baird referred to the parking lot as that “monolithic ode to the auto,” and proposed a new lot in a different configuration that could provide a greater number of vehicles atop a pervious surface that would allow rain water to seep back into the ground instead of running off onto the streets and neighboring lots. The facility he envisions would use a system of reinforced logs and would function to return the site to nature.
A majority of the six-acre property itself is underutilized and could be put to greater use with increased landscaping.
“At least a third of the property is overgrown with brambles,” he said.
Referring to the northwest corner of the lot toward Hillcrest Avenue, he presented the possibility of installing a pond to collect rain water and serve as an anchor point for the museum grounds.
“It could be a place where neighborhood kids sail little boats,” he said.
Other concepts include a repurposing of the director’s house (which no longer houses the director) into office and storage space.
Many present kept asking what the finished product would look like and worried that the size or mass of the building would contrast with the character along the Avenue. Addressing this is what Baird referred to as Transparency – determining the right size for the additional exhibition space.
From the hospital to the college, Germantown Avenue features institutional uses on large lots that were once used as residences. Baird said that while it’s still too early in the process to suggest a design concept, it makes sense to maintain that context, adding not every element of the museum needs to be under a single roof.
The 1950s expansion of the building that sits between the original house and the Kuch Gallery is confusing, and repurposing it in a way to restore the main entrance of the museum to the front door of the original home is one. Expansion of the art store is also a priority.
Also a concern was the potential that an expansion would deprive the gallery space of its sense of intimacy. Baird acknowledged that the trend in museum exhibition space has, in recent years, leaned toward creating spaces that resemble “big white boxes,” autonomous spaces that exist independently from the rest of the museum. Baird said that while that can be taken to an extreme, museum space can be both.
“All of my favorite museums are house museums,” he said, adding that Woodmere has that domestic quality and that “it would be a shame not to amplify that.”
Baird explained that as the institution grew up around the original house, which was built as a residence and not a museum, the placement of household elements like gas lines, phone line, and electric all remained in place.
Baird praised the Kuch Gallery itself, describing it as pre-modern, yet modern. “Whatever we end up doing here needs to respond to that,” he said.
Baird said the finished product would improve and make more beautiful the edge that runs along Bells Mill Road.
It’s too early to say how big in terms of square feet the final program will contain, but that more details will be available in about a year.
“Stay tuned,” Baird said.