Renovation Transforms KU’s Spencer Museum Of Art

A design based on light and transparency yields an experience of uplift.

The renovation nearing completion at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence had three specific missions, but its immediate effect is all about light and transparency.

When the museum reopens on the University of Kansas campus in October, visitors will discover not just a wholly transformed space, but a wholly transformed experience.

That’s what director Saralyn Reece Hardy had in mind as plans to make over the museum coalesced in recent years.

Architects at the firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners delivered the big idea: the see-through space that replaces the look of the former stone-clad fortress.  The openness begins at the new entrance on Mississippi Street, continues through the main-floor spaces and out the new two-story glass wall on the west.

The new west wall overlooks Marvin Grove, with its 100-year-old walnut trees and historic specimens, making an intentional connection to the landscape and tree line that define the heart of the campus.

“I’m sure the view out onto the grove will change the experience, the psychological experience of being in the building,” Reece Hardy says during a recent hard-hat walk through the museum space, floors three and four in the five-story building. “On some level it will change everything about every exhibit.”

In the new museum, Reece Hardy says, “people, place and context are part of a whole” and visitors will come to understand that the Spencer is “not only a place for art, but a central place for education and inspiration.”

Former visits to the Spencer, which opened in 1977, could be confusing, and certainly dark if not dreary. But now, bright white-oak floors, daylight and softly filtered LED lighting redefine what had been the marble-lined formality of the museum’s past.

An entry lobby will be much larger and far more welcoming, given its “computer bar” and student lounge. The adjacent Central Court, rising two levels, will house changing exhibits, intended to feed student appetites for new ideas. Upstairs a flight, the newly hung permanent galleries include balconies that overlook the central space below and also benefit from the daylight views. European masters, Asian and tribal works and just about everything else should feel freshly engaging. One long and narrow gallery will feature photography, works on paper and the ever-expanding field of digital media.

“You can expect to see our collections installed in surprising new ways,” Reece Hardy says.

Uplift is one of the operative spirits of the place, Reece Hardy said. Education and access are others.

A newly designed study center has an art-on-demand ethos meant to appeal to multiple disciplines and goes to the heart of what Reece Hardy identifies as the museum’s teaching and learning responsibilities. Faculty members can request that items from museum collections — a total of more than 37,000 objects — be put on display so classes can inspect, discuss and react. What the general public will get in the space is a frequently changing gallery that will feel up to date, relevant and responsive to current events. On a given day, the room’s multiple displays might project a dialogue between, say, architecture and political science, or painting and history, depending on which classes are in the midst of using it.

Reece Hardy believes the refurbished building will “place art at the center of learning” at KU and create collaborations with faculty across the campus. The museum has been motivated by a recent grant of nearly $500,000 from the Mellon Foundation for an “integrated arts research initiative, “which encourages broadening audiences and using art to address issues in science, business, humanities, the law and other disciplines.

All of that makes the Spencer a “responsive entity rather than a didactic one,” Reece Hardy says.

Another room, open to students and faculty but not the public, will give the Spencer an enhanced opportunity to offer close study of prints and other objects. An anonymous donor put up a seven-figure gift to name the space in honor of Stephen Goddard, a professor as well as associate director and senior curator of the Spencer.

Goddard is currently planning a major exhibit, for 2018, that will emphasize the museum’s newly massaged identity as both a conduit for art and nature and a center of interdisciplinary research. Called “Big Botany,” the show makes connections between humans and plants through art and ideas. It’s a fitting topic for KU and for neighboring Marvin Grove, which was named for Chancellor James Marvin, a Methodist minister and amateur horticulturalist who led the tree-planting in 1878.

The architecture team at Pei Cobb Freed, who also designed the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, had three major goals to work toward in transforming the museum’s nearly 30,000 square feet, Reece Hardy says. One was to “allow for the academic and educational mission to flourish.” Another was fluidity, creating the connection of art within to the world outside. Third was that welcoming entry, which stretched the existing footprint by a few feet to create the glass-lined space.

Although the project grew from its original budget to about $7.5 million, private donors stepped up to help fund it, and Hardy believes “we did a lot for that.” In addition to the public spaces, museum storage facilities will also be vastly improved.

The investment in art and education makes a major statement for the museum and the university during a contentious era. “That this is happening at this time in this state,” Reece Hardy says, “is significant.”

The Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas will reopen to the public with festivities from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 15 and noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 16. On Oct. 18 the museum resumes regular hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; Closed Monday. The museum is located at 1301 Mississippi St., Lawrence, Kan. Admission is free. For more information, 785.864.4710 or www. spencerart.ku.edu

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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