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Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 03/24/2006

Glimpses of Greatness

By Julia Beizer

The new Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture is set to open on July 1, and if yesterday's press preview is any indication of the changes being made to home of the National
Portrait Gallery
and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washingtonians can look forward to a beautiful, modernized new space this summer.

The museum closed on New Year's Day in 2000 to begin the necessary -- if unexciting -- process of upgrading its facilities to meet today's building codes. The museum later secured funds from Congress and outside sources to do a full-scale renovation of the mid-19th Century building. Marble floors were removed stone by stone and cleaned. Blown-glass windows were ordered from Poland. Ceilings were patched up and enhanced with modern, museum-quality lighting. Not all of the work is complete yet -- in fact, some areas still look far from finished -- but the changes look pretty good. The green and gilded Victorian-style Great Hall is simply breathtaking.

The recently added amenity that most impressed me is the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, a visible art storage center. A series of fully-packed glass display cases in the building's former library hold 3,300 works -- everything from medals to sculptures to paintings. Computer kiosks offer information about every piece on view. The display cases are very close together so visitors won't have the opportunity to stand back and admire the works as they can in the galleries, but the cases allow the public to see much more of the museums' combined collection of 41,000 objects, which would otherwise be stored offsite.

The new design includes conservation studios with full-length glass windows that allow visitors to look in as workers repair and restore artworks. Apparently some members of the staff were a bit wary of working in a human fishbowl all day -- can you blame them? -- but the new spaces will give visitors a first-hand look at what goes on behind the scenes at a museum.

The building was great to see, even in its unfinished state, but the best news I learned yesterday is that the museums will adopt new hours when it reopens. The Reynolds Center will be open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., allowing those of us who live here -- and work a day job for a living -- the chance to drop by a first-class art collection after work. And making sure the public can visit a museum does just as much for the accessibility of art than a spiffy new building.


By Julia Beizer  | March 24, 2006; 10:04 AM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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Do you have any photos from the tour?

Posted by: Rob Goodspeed | March 26, 2006 11:47 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Rob. We put together a slideshow of images today. You can check it out by clicking on the links to either the American Art Museum or National Portrait Gallery above. It's the link underneath the picture on the right-hand side of the page.

Posted by: Julia | March 29, 2006 4:29 PM | Report abuse

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