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How Good is the Hood? Dartmouth’s Expanded Art Museum Reopens CLARIFIED and UPDATED

After a much delayed $50-million renovation and expansion, Dartmouth College’s 65,000-object Hood Museum of Art at last reopened on Jan. 26 with six new art galleries, three new study galleries and three classrooms equipped with “the latest object-study technology.” The museum’s total area of 62,400 square feet represents an increase of over 50 percent and provides a 42% increase in gallery space (for a total of 16,350 square feet).

Below is the museum’s photo of its new contemporary art gallery, anchored by the Rothko that I had admired when I visited for the Wall Street Journal in 2012. “Lilac and Orange over Ivory,” 1953 (at center, below), was given to the museum by the late William Rubin, former director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern art:

Early visitors to the contemporary art gallery at the new Hood
Photo by Robert Gill, courtesy of the Hood Museum

The Hood’s completely reimagined façade is meant to be more inviting than its somber 1985 Charles Moore-designed entrance:

Former entrance of the Hood Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Surprisingly, the museum last week wouldn’t provide me with photos of the new exterior and declined to explain why. I’m guessing the reason was that it wasn’t yet ready for its close-up, as evidenced by this shot taken on Jan. 17 for an article in the Valley News, West Lebanon, NH. The Hood is the gray building on the left, which appeared to still be a work-in-progress:

Reprinted with permission from Valley News, Lebanon, N.H.
Photo by James M. Patterson

Below is the photo that the museum did send me: a spiffy rendering of its new façade, which makes it appear much brighter than in the above photo. The north-facing “vitrine” on the right provides the only bit of visual interest in the otherwise stark frontage, described by the museum as “off-white brick”:

North façade of expanded Hood Museum, facing the Dartmouth Green
Rendering by MARCH

The truth is apparently somewhere in between: On Monday, the Dartmouth News (published by the college’s Office of Communications) included this actual photo of the new Hood, unobstructed by construction:

The new entrance of the Hood Museum
Photo by Eli Burakian ’00

The reimagined museum is less ambitious in size and scope than what had been envisioned in 2012, after then director Michael Taylor had helped to choose Tod Williams and Billie Tsien as architects. (The role of Taylor, now deputy director and chief curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is unmentioned in the Hood’s current informational materials.)

As I reported here, the original plan to renovate Wilson Hall (the red brick building on the left in the above photo), as part of the capital project, was rejected as “too expensive,” in the words of current director John Stomberg.

John Stomberg, Director, Hood Museum

Wilson Hall was to have had “new galleries, new offices and new teaching classrooms in an add-on museum learning center,” as Taylor had told me in this 2012 CultureGrrl Video about the plans.

Michael Taylor & curator Sarah Powers, his wife, having lunch with me at Dartmouth
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Canon-busting” is a governing principle of the reinstallation, as Stomberg told Sarah Earle of the Valley News. “We do still have a beautiful European gallery, but it’s no longer at the heart of the museum,” he said.

According to Earle’s article:

Along with showing the range of the Hood’s collections, curators wanted to highlight the museum’s strengths….They dedicated ample space to contemporary African, African Diaspora and contemporary Native American art—all specialties for which the Hood is known. The museum’s European collection, on the other hand, is relegated to one room.

Likewise, some of the museum’s most famous pieces, such as Pablo Picasso’s “Guitar on a Table” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Taos Mountain, New Mexico,” get less prominent display space than some lesser-known but worthy pieces.

“We have lots and lots of things that everybody knows, but where’s the fun in that?” said Stomberg, who came to the Hood Museum in 2016, the same year the renovations began [emphasis added].

I think there’s plenty of “fun” in viewing key works by well known artists and I’m not so sure that “everybody knows” those works when students arrive on campus. Justifiably boastful of having “one of the largest and finest university collections in the country,” the Hood has a responsibility to to familiarize interested undergraduates with key works from “the canon,” especially in the opening hang of its improved facility.

As it happens, Picasso’s “Guitar on a Table,” cited as one of the museum’s “most famous pieces,” is currently “not on view,” according to the museum’s website

CLARIFICATION: Stomberg later informed me that the Picasso was indeed on view, although the museum’s listing for it (and other works) on its website hadn’t been updated when I checked it (and relied on it for this story). As of this afternoon (2:57 p.m., Feb. 8), it’s still listed as “Not on view.”

“It is the star of a gallery called ‘Transatlantic Modern,'” Stomberg told me, “dedicated to the immense international impact the artist had on the art of his time. We start with the Picasso in the central spot and then follow through several permutations of his influence in the US and France. Other artists include Juan Gris, Jean Metzinger, and Fernand Leger as well as Preston Dickinson, Oscar Bluemner and Stuart Davis. The gallery ends with the Surrealism of Kay Sage and Matta, leading to an amazing 1958 Jean Dubuffet.

Picasso, “Guitar on a Table,” 1912
Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Class of 1930

In comments to WBUR, Boston’s public radio station, Stomberg said that the Hood’s displays would “lean toward social justice….You’ll see a lot of socially engaged, politically engaged artwork…that addresses environmental concerns, racial concerns, gender identity.”

Former director Taylor (who hasn’t seen the expansion yet) said this to me when I asked him about the emphasis on topicality:

I think it reflects the global turn in the museum field that was already taking place when I was there….John and his team have done such a fabulous job with the new expansion and the Hood Museum of Art’s collection must look amazing in those ample, beautifully designed gallery spaces.

The trend towards increased social consciousness seems to be the new normal at many art museums—not only those at college institutions that are geared to young audiences, but also at traditional museums that aim for general audiences. But a drive for relevance shouldn’t supersede the imperatives of quality and scholarship—especially at a distinguished Ivy League institution like Dartmouth.

UPDATE—Director John Stomberg responds:

You are absolutely correct about the need to balance—making room for the new without losing what is best in established canons. This is exactly what we strive for at the Hood. You will still find the Ed Ruscha, but joined now by May Stevens; the El Anatsui, but joined by Obiora Udechukwu; the Mark Rothko [seen above], but joined by Pat Steir; and classic Ukiyo-e prints, but joined by the work of Munakata Shikō.”

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