View of the Katharina Fritsch's "Hahn/Cock" on the new terrace at NGA's East Building
October 19, 2016

A Look Inside the Renovations of the National Gallery of Art's East Building

  • By: Kirsten Hower

After a three-year closure and $69 million in renovations, the National Gallery of Art's East Building reopened on Friday, September 30. The highly anticipated reopening of the building, which houses the museum's modern art collection, unveiled over 150 new works of art and 12,250 square feet in exhibition space.

Of particular interest to most visitors was the expansion of the gallery without any changes to the building's footprint. How does one add over 12,000 square feet of exhibition space without making the building any larger?

The mezzanine gallery at the NGA's East Building, featuring Janine Antoni's "Lick and Lather"

Janine Antoni's "Lick and Lather" is one of many works of art on display in the renovated East Building.

When the National Gallery of Art's founder, Andrew W. Mellon, proposed the creation of the museum in the 1930s, he anticipated an expansion to accommodate a growing permanent collection. When the West Building opened in 1941, space was already allocated for the expansion that would become the East Building. Designed by I.M. Pei, the East Building opened in 1978 and immediately became of a symbol of Modernist architecture.

“It's not hubris or arrogance to say what the gallery was founded on is quality, quality of the building and quality of the collection,” the Gallery's director Earl A. Powell III told the Washington Post. “We've always been true to that. We treat this building as a work of art.”

Wanting to keep a continuation in design, the NGA reached out to Pei when discussions of the East Building's renovation started. Pei recommended a former colleague, Perry I. Chin, for the job. Chin undertook the monumental task of concept architect to expand the building while honoring Pei's original design and footprint. He took advantage of unused space in the gallery, opening up towers one and two and adding floors to each, creating much of the 12,250 square feet of new exhibition space. A terrace connecting the two towers completed the space, allowing for an outdoor sculpture garden that overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue.

Social media influencers explore the Calder room in Tower 2 of the reopened NGA East Building

Social media influencers preview the East Building before reopening. Here they explore the new Calder room in Tower 2.

“We wanted to increase the flow and let people climb the building,” says the Gallery's chief architect Susan Wertheim. To achieve the architectural vision of Chin and his team, the collection had to be curated anew and rehung. Curator of Modern Art Harry Cooper created a new narrative with the expanding permanent collection and visiting artworks to assist in the flowing narrative that Chin designed.

“For the first time to present the collection in chronological order, incorporating works on paper and video,” Cooper says. “It's a change of procedure for us.”

The completion of the East Building's three-year renovation comes at an appropriate time as the National Gallery of Art celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. While each of the changes to the building may seem subtle, the overall impact on the building is tremendous. Even to the most infrequent visitor, it feels like a whole new building.

Kirsten Hower is a former member of the National Trust’s social media team. When she’s not helping save places, you’ll find her reading, wandering around art museums, or hiking along the Potomac River with her dog.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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