Access to the Arts: Artisitic Value of Architecture in Akron Museum of Art Expansion

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Fri, 03/25/2005 - 15:25.

With a major expansion project about to commence at the Cleveland Museum of Art, it is easy to forget about the exciting expansion project going on only 45 minutes away at the Akron Museum of Art. Access to the Arts’s “Arts on the Air� program Monday, March 14th brought much deserved attention to this project through an interview with Dr. Mitchell Kahan, Director of the Akron Museum of Art and Tom Wiscombe, Project Partner of Coop Himmelb(l)au, the architectural firm that designed the addition to The Museum. Steven Litt, the Arts and Architecture Critic of the Plain Dealer conducted the interview before a live audience of approximately 100 in the Ritz-Carlton.

This interview was recorded and broadcast by WCLV 104.9 on Sunday, March 20th. Recordings of this and other Access to the Arts programs are available for purchase.

Interviewer, Museum Director and Architect had an obvious chemistry, created through their mutual faith in the artistic value of architecture that made this Access to the Arts program particularly valuable. Steven Litt and Mitchell Kahan have known each other for over 25 years. They first met while working in North Carolina; Litt as a journalist and Kahan as a curator. Tom Wiscombe, who has worked with Coop Himmelb(l)au in Los Angeles and Vienna since the early 1990s, has very recent ties to North East Ohio through this project, yet it is evident that he has developed a strong working relationship with Kahan. Litt’s questions covered the practical aspects of building an art museum and the more philosophical and spiritual qualities of architecture.

One of Steven Litt’s most provocative questions was why the Akron Museum of Art did not choose a local firm. Mitchell Kahan proudly defended a decision that is sensitive issue to some Northeast Ohioan. He stated that from the earliest stages local firms were ruled out because The Museum’s board wanted to give visitors an experience they could not have anywhere else in the state. Kahan believes it is the responsibility of institutions like the Akron Art Museum to create monuments for future generations to appreciate. He acknowledged that it is often difficult to create outstanding architecture because boards are typically conservative; however, he emphasized that new Akron Museum of Art will actually be a very functional building, not purely expressionist or deconstructionist. Museum benefactors have been supportive and fundraising for the project has been very successful. Tom Wiscombe articulately explained his firm’s appropriateness to the project. Designing a museum expansion that incorporated an existing building over a century old appealed to Coop Himmelb(l)au’s affinity for creating tension between old and new, a concept that developed quite naturally working in Europe. Green elements of the building, which Wiscombe described as “partly active/partly passive� will save energy and money and add to the building’s appeal.

The question and answer period after the interview covered many interesting issues that had not been addressed. Programs for school children, which are currently going on now in a limited form through an outreach program, will become even more important once the building is complete. Halida Dinova, a very talented local pianist entertaining the audience during the post interview luncheon, asked if the new Akron Museum of Art would have a concert hall. Kahan explained that a multipurpose auditorium is included in the expansion, though it is not designed specifically for musical performances. An unscheduled window cleaning demonstration at the Ritz-Carlton inspired some questions about the more practical aspects of the building. Robert Conrad of WCLV 104.9 FM asked Tom Wiscombe how the windows in the new building would be washed. Wiscombe explained that a cherry picker would be used to wash windows and change light bulbs -- plus human window washers. Graham Grund, Executive Director of Access to the Arts, asked Wiscombe if The Museum’s design was a stylistic return to 19th century museums with skylights such as the MET and the National Gallery. Wiscombe explained that despite superficial similarities in appearance the design of the Akron Museum of Art was much more suitable for the climate in Ohio and the lighting demands of contemporary art.

The new Akron Museum of Art is scheduled to open soon --in the fall of 2006. The new design will better reflect The Museum’s collection of art created since 1850. As Mitchell Kahan stated during the interview, the original 1899 Renaissance style structure was never appropriate. The new building will offer exciting exhibition possibilities and will increase attendance, which has been 50-70,000 visitors per year in the past. A recent visit to the construction site did not reveal much of what the new Museum would look like, but those who are curious should checkout the Akron Museum of Art’s website where you will find a slide show of architectural drawings from various perspectives. Another exciting aspect of the re-opening of Akron Museum of Art is the work of art that has been commissioned in honor of the event (the name of the artist and other details have been kept secret).

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