LINCOLN — Daniel Veneciano has seen the Sheldon Museum of Art in its purest state: When it's empty.
Veneciano, director of the museum on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, has strolled the galleries in between exhibitions, when technicians take down artwork, patch walls and paint surfaces, refreshing the galleries and returning them to pristine form.
When it came time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the museum, designed by celebrated architect Philip Johnson, Veneciano harkened back to those moments.
The same technicians removed all the art from the museum's walls. They took down the sculptures. They patched and repainted until the museum had been stripped down to nothing but its architectural skivvies. During “The Naked Museum,” which runs through the end of June, Veneciano hopes viewers will share in his experience and appreciate what might be the Sheldon's most important piece: its building.
“You have to be a special museum to pull this off,” Veneciano said. “I will admit there are risks involved. But there is no better way to help people see the museum in a new light.”
Veneciano took his experiences inside Sheldon's empty galleries and combined them with another inspiration to make “The Naked Museum” a reality. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by another iconic architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, did something similar in 2010 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Its show “Contemplating the Void” invited architects, performers and artists to think about the architecture and create a piece for the museum's open rotunda.
Catherine Futter, curator of architecture, design and decorative arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., said she first heard about “The Naked Museum” about a year ago during a visit to Sheldon.
She's heard of museums doing similar shows, though usually they take place right after a new building opens or during construction or remodeling.
She said she thinks the show will encourage viewers to rethink the space they've come to know.
The opening reception for the show in early May was Sheldon's biggest this year, said the museum's spokeswoman, Ann Gradwohl. More than 400 people attended, putting the one-night attendance in line with some of the museum's biggest annual events.
An exhibition like this — one that features an empty museum — has never happened in Nebraska, said Suzanne Wise, director of the Nebraska Arts Council. She applauded the Sheldon for taking the risk.
“No one really thinks too much about the role that architecture plays in an art museum,” Wise said. “You really are forced to think about the museum as its own piece of art, and that is an interesting concept.”
She said she thinks Nebraska art audiences are ready for it.
When viewers walk through the Sheldon, they won't see “Princess X,” the Constantin Brancusi sculpture in the Great Hall, or “A Room in New York,” the Edward Hopper painting in the permanent collection galleries. Instead, they will hear the sounds of the quiet museum, most notably the rush of air through vents, and they'll be made aware of the sound of their own body moving through the empty space. They'll be able to focus on the patterns in the gray and white travertine marble and how the circles of light from the fixtures hit the floors and walls.
For “The Naked Museum,” a small installation of rocks has been placed on the intersections of the big floor tiles in one second-floor gallery. The rocks are from Sheldon's outdoor sculpture garden — also designed by Johnson — and Veneciano said the installation is meant to bring what's outside the museum inside of it. A soundtrack of minimalist piano music by Philip Glass echoes through the space.
Walking through the gallery is an experience that begs contemplation — the viewer feels like part of a performance.
Sheldon's design is no accident, said Cleve Reeves, an associate principal with BVH Architects in Lincoln and president-elect of the American Institute of Architects' Lincoln chapter. Johnson made a clear transition from the neo-classical designs of the past, with traditional design and old-style columns, toward a crisp, modern style of architecture.
“The building straddles both lines,” he said. “There's the traditional column order with its simple purity outside, but then inside he blew out that center hall and it's all glass. You wouldn't have done that in neo-classical design.”
Johnson's intent, Reeves said, was to move architecture forward.
A native of Ohio, Johnson became fascinated with architecture after a visit to Europe, where he saw the Parthenon, among other monuments. He toured Europe again with Alfred H. Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and they explored architectural trends. In 1932, they organized a landmark architecture exhibition called “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922,” at MoMA. The show was the first introduction to modern architectural styles for most Americans. It featured the work of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, among others.
It wasn't until the 1940s that Johnson became a full-time architect. He's most known for his Glass House, designed in 1949 in New Canaan, Conn., where he lived; and the Seagram Building in New York, an iconic glass and bronze tower on Park Avenue. Johnson designed other notable buildings, including the David A. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York.
Knowing the history of the architect who built a museum can be informative.
“I hope a show like this helps viewers understand the intention of (the person) who builds a museum, the intention of who envisioned it,” said Futter, the Nelson-Atkins curator.
Over time, curators, directors and even users manipulate a museum building. “The Naked Museum” returns Sheldon to Johnson's original vision.
“It's like a reboot for your mind,” Futter said. “It gives the chance for us to think about what our reaction to the space is supposed to be.”
UNL broke ground for the Sheldon in 1961 and the building was complete in 1963. The building is made of Italian travertine quarried from plains near Rome and moved in blocks.
Johnson had the blocks cut in the design of a puzzle, which he fit together in Lincoln. Concave discs in the ceiling of Sheldon's Great Hall are covered in gold leaf, in contrast to the rest of the marble surfaces. A bridge that leads to the upstairs galleries, bordered in bronze, seems to float in midair, and huge glass windows and a transparent glass rail on the staircases make the great hall feel vast.
Reeves saw the nearly empty museum earlier this month. He said he noticed many intricate details viewers wouldn't look at if art on the wall competed for their attention.
“The emptiness gives you a sense of the interconnectedness of the building. The flow through the space is tremendous,” he said.
Among the many details visitors might notice: the stark difference of the white travertine marble when compared with other buildings on the UNL campus made from limestone or brick; the play of shadow and light over the building's convex and concave surfaces; the transparency of the Great Hall; the courtyards and sculpture gardens surrounding the museum; and how the architect considered the importance of the seemingly least important elements.
“Even the elevator and outdoor loading dock are detailed,” Reeves said.
Sheldon has arranged a variety of programming, and much of it is challenging.
UNL music professor and pianist Paul Barnes will perform a concert of minimalist music by Glass (Barnes performed the same concert at the concert hall at Lincoln Center, another Johnson building). The Angels Theatre project is performing the same play three times in three spaces in the museum, varying the performance each time.
Charley Friedman, a noted New York-based performance artist and Lincoln native, will perform. He's shown at Sheldon but also at MoMA's PS 1, among other New York art spaces, and at galleries and museums around the world.
He's also giving “museum tours” at his hometown museum, but not as himself. For the remaining tour this month, he'll be “Betsey Geffen.”
“They are not going to be traditional tours,” Friedman said, chuckling. “The viewer is not just a viewer but a participant in the piece. They become a part of the performance and we become meshed together. They are not just going to have material thrown at them and then go home.”
Friedman said “The Naked Museum” brings contemplation, but, maybe more importantly, it brings new experiences for the city's art community.
“The arts in this country is something that people don't connect to,” Friedman said. “I want people to connect to the museum and also their community, and if I can help them do that through a sense of humor, then I want to.”
Friedman said if the point of a museum is to teach its visitors, the “Naked Museum” will.
“Hopefully, not everybody 'gets it,'” he said about the show. “Because if everybody gets it, there is no need to do it. What the museum is doing is challenging and it is a risk and that's exactly what the community needs.”
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