The challenge, as Rafael Vinoly saw it, was to bring harmony to the Cleveland Museum of Art. More than a decade ago, the world-renowned architect dared the museum's leadership to tear down the twisting corridors and galleries that connected its two main buildings. Start over, he said.
The 1916 Building, with its classical columns and soaring ceilings, and Marcel Breuer's 1971 addition, stark in its brutalist modernism, were "two very different buildings that needed to be in harmony, when in reality they were never," Vinoly says. "They had suffered over many years of partial renovations or additions, a process of hiding behind each other."
Touring the collection with then-director Katharine Lee Reid further convinced Vinoly that the museum needed a radical renovation. The collection mesmerized him. "It's really the executive summary of the Met," he says. "It has the best of everything." He felt the art deserved a more unified home, a "more globalized way of seeing the museum, more than in pieces."
Cleveland has waited more than eight years to see Vinoly's vision realized. The art museum closed most of its galleries in 2005 to begin its $350 million expansion. Then it brought the collection back in stages: the Armor Court in 2008, modern and contemporary art in the new, Vinoly-designed East Wing in 2009. At last, in 2012, it opened the enormous new glass atrium, a year-round town commons, a bright refuge from winter and a celebration of the sun in summer.
"The atrium, fundamentally, tries to create this sense of collective ownership," Vinoly says. "It's not a place that you could say, 'It's 100 percent devoted to a museum.' It's a public room."
Now, Clevelanders can see the idea that drove Vinoly's plan. The atrium unites the museum and allows people to customize their visit. Nearly the entire history of Western art awaits if you go straight to the 1916 Building and make your way east. Modernists can go straight to the East Wing and plunge into impressionism's art revolution. Or, starting this month, you can embark on a transcontinental tour — to Africa, Asia and Native North America — by traveling clockwise from the 1916 Building through the new West Wing, which opens to the public Jan. 2, and expanded North Wing.
It's the best of times for the museum, right after the worst of times. The expansion has reached its last milestone as the museum recovers from a leadership crisis. Former director David Franklin's resignation, brought about by an affair with a former staffer, was the talk of the town this past fall. His departure continues an era of high turnover in the museum's top job. It also prompted the board of trustees to appoint Fred Bidwell as interim director and to embark on a nearly yearlong search for a new director to sustain the museum's momentum. Under Franklin, the museum embraced new interactive technologies that interpret the collection. With its massive annual summer Solstice party and monthly Mix events, it became a popular gathering place for young art lovers. It's reached beyond University Circle to form a partnership with the Transformer Station gallery in Ohio City.
As a collection, as a place, the museum is now united and grander than ever. It exudes a sense of cohesion and wholeness — something the institution's leadership can aspire to.