Behind an art museum’s gleaming galleries lies the off-limits and uninviting space that can hold as much as 95% of its collection: storage.
These spaces are often packed with hundreds or even thousands of paintings, decorative art objects and other artifacts that can languish, unappreciated and untouched by curators, for years.
But as a way to bring art out from its underbelly and display more of a museum’s possessions, several institutions are embracing “visible storage” in public areas, exhibiting the art without the expense of a spacious, beautifully installed and curated show.
And two new, but quite different, examples are planned for museums in Los Angeles.
At the L.A. County Museum of Art, where only 2.3% of the 119,000-piece collection is currently on view, director Michael Govan has been working with architect Peter Zumthor on new $650-million building plans that would, among other things, bring more artwork out of storage.
Meanwhile, at the Broad under construction downtown, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro are essentially putting the storage room itself — and maybe the idea of storage as well — on display. The Broad is expected to open to the public by the end of 2014.
“There is this public assumption that museums are hoarding objects in dark rooms, and by the way that isn’t totally wrong,” said Govan. “What we’re saying is that those objects are worthy for viewing and studying if not always for exhibitions. So you’re not contemplating a masterpiece, but maybe you’ll find value in comparing and contrasting different examples of vases.”
Govan says Zumthor’s proposed design — a building that features an expansive single-floor exhibition space supported 30 feet off the ground by glass stems called “cores” — would allow for twice as many artworks to be on display as the current buildings do.
The idea, Govan said, is that the cores would contain “denser,” “semi-permanent” installations of art (along with stairs, elevators and study rooms) visible from the museum grounds. He has compared these spaces to storefronts on Rodeo Drive, giving visitors a taste of what’s inside, even at night.
“For us this is about our institutional history,” said Joanne Heyler, the director and chief curator of the Broad museum, the future home to Eli and Edythe Broad’s 2,000-work collection. “How in a building can we make it clear to visitors that storage and conservation are a core part of the museum’s function? And how do we make that more transparent?”
While the main skylight-studded exhibition space will be located on the third floor, the second floor features private-access storage rooms for paintings and sculptures. But leaving the third floor by stairs promises a wow moment, with floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows offering two glimpses into the paintings storage area.
One will be a sweeping view of the storage racks (picture large steel sheets that run along suspended tracks). Another window is positioned between the aisles, so several paintings will be visible.
And, yes, Heyler is already thinking about what to display most prominently in storage, noting for example that a 20-foot Anselm Kiefer painting would be too large to be seen in full in that space.
“That’s the funny thing,” she said. “You end up curating your storage.”
Visitors can already experience something similar at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. The museum, which opened two years ago, teases visitors with views into glass-walled storage rooms on the ground floor, while the main exhibition galleries are above.
Dean Sobel, the director of the Clyfford Still Museum, said the thinking was to help demonstrate the depth and breadth of the artist’s life’s work — 95% of which, he says, belongs to the museum.
“Once we decided that all of the storage would be on site, we made the decision not just to relegate it to a basement but to put it on the ground floor as part of the visitor experience. We wanted to put activity normally hidden from the viewer on display,” he said, noting that the conservation area is also visible through glass walls.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was one of the first museums to embrace visible storage in the U.S. — and surely the most prominent. In 1988, it took thousands of American artworks out of locked storage and installed them in a series of large glass cases in a visitor-friendly area, creating the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art.
Amelia Peck, the center’s manager, says there are now 7,129 objects — about two-fifths of the Met’s entire American collection — packed densely into 46 large display cases. Unlike more traditional, spacious museum exhibitions, this material remains on view for years at a time with minimal changes, and it’s organized simply: grouped by material like silver, ceramics, glass, paintings and furniture, and then chronological within each group.
Soon other Luce centers — at the New-York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed suit. They were a pet project of Henry (“Hank”) Luce III, who helped to fund their creation through the Luce Foundation before he died in 2005.
“Thank goodness for the Luce Foundation and Hank Luce himself, who was a major proponent of using this new invention to allow the public to see more of what an institution holds as stewards,” said Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum.
The Brooklyn Museum currently has about 2,600 works of a 500,000-object collection tightly arranged in glass cases, with more to come this fall. The plan is to dramatically increase the visible storage this fall as a way of keeping objects on view during the museum’s two-year renovation of its Asian, East Asian, Indian and Islamic galleries.
As the Luce “study” center name suggests, one reason museums have embraced this model is to better serve the needs of scholars and museum professionals.
Peck at the Metropolitan speaks of devoted connoisseurs who want to see the difference between a New York- and Boston-style handle on silver tankards. Lial Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, describes passionate collectors who want to see dozens of examples of a specific type of pottery glaze — and can do so in their new visible ceramics storage.
But museums are also using visible storage as part of larger efforts to reach new and possibly younger visitors. Lehman sees it as an alternative to asking visitors to follow the viewpoint of a carefully curated exhibition.
“What we’ve found is that people love visible storage,” said Lehman. “They feel like they’re on their own, not as directed as they would be in galleries, and they get to discover things. It’s like a treasure hunt.”
Or, to put it another way, it’s like an Internet search: making your own way through a sea of images.
Sure enough, the most common complaint heard about visible storage is also an information-age refrain: visual overload, or simply too much stuff.
But some museum leaders believe that a new generation of Internet-savvy, image-manipulating visitors have been in effect trained to sort through and appreciate these dense sort of displays.
Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, is working to turn a former Kroger grocery store a short drive away into a walk-in, open-to-the-public storage facility for the museum. He believes that today’s visitors want the option of having that experience, as well as access to beautifully curated or thoughtfully organized shows that showcase more iconic works.
“I think that behind all of this is the sense that the standard notion of what is display and what is storage has been changing in our culture,” he said. “More broadly, we have a different attitude toward image storage and retrieval because of new technologies.”
Some also see computer databases as an essential part of the visible storage model, as was the case from the start with the Met’s Luce Center.
According to Peck, the Met’s technology wasn’t so seamless at first, when visitors had to jot on paper — or worse yet, remember — an eight-digit number to type into a computer across the room and retrieve object descriptions. Now, more intuitive touch-screen devices are mounted on the cases themselves.
Heyler said the Broad is exploring the idea of using some location-sharing software to let visitors with iPhones or iPads or other tablets standing near the storage rooms call up information on the artworks inside.
Govan said it’s too early for him to talk about specific software or hardware but that technology is an integral part of the new LACMA plan — and its dense collection displays.
“Labels are one of the biggest drains on money and time when you’re reorganizing the permanent collection, so the working assumption is that by the time this building gets built, all this information will be available [digitally].”
He suggested that this could bring the 21st century museum closer in feel to its 19th century predecessor. Back then, he said, “you had a brass plaque on a frame, not all these labels and didactics. As technology advances, we will unburden the visual space, not burden it, so the museum will be even more focused on art.”