Bigger and better, Currier Museum reopens to the public

Nearly two years in the making, the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester revealed its new self on March 30, when it reopened to the public.

The Currier underwent a $21.4 million expansion, adding an additional 33,000 square feet of space for galleries, dining, classrooms and offices.

Ann Beha Architects of Boston designed the project. Its portfolio includes such cultural institutions as the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Maine, the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Conn., as well as the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at St. Paul’s School in Concord.

“We selected Ann Beha because they specialize in museums,” said Susan Leidy, deputy director of the Currier. “Also, their local presence in Boston and a focus on regional projects was important.”

The first change in the museum is hard to ignore — bold, tall and very orange.

Greeting the 47,000 people who visit the Currier each year is “Origins,” a 35-foot-tall abstract steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero, an abstract sculptor currently based in New York City.

The sculpture dramatically informs guests that the Currier has incorporated more modern art into its collection.

Ringed by a series of floodlights, the sculpture is uplit during the evenings making for a striking welcome to the museum’s nighttime guests.

The entrance court also includes 30 additional parking spaces, for a total of 45.

A concrete walkway stained in hues of ochre and rust, created by local artist Tom Schultz, guides visitors from the parking area, past “Origins,” to the new north entrance.

The museum’s north visitor’s lobby has been greatly expanded.

“We never really had a large space to greet and organize larger groups, like those from schools,” said Leidy. “We now have a space that is much more comfortable and accommodating.”

Warm wood finishes, sleek metal accents and dark solid surfacing on information desk set a modern tone in the visitor’s lobby, reiterating the “Origins” sculpture.

New also are the visitor’s lockers, coat room and rest rooms flanking the information area. The museum gift shop was enlarged as well, and now is four times the size it was before the project began.

Stained concrete floors in moss and earth tones lead visitors to a set of marble arches and the popular paper weight exhibit. A second new arch precedes the existing black marble arch with rose and cream veining from the original 1929 construction.

“Stonemason Chance Anderson could not find the exact marble used in 1929, so he searched resources all over the world to find something close,” said Leidy. “The marble they found is almost exact.”

The stairs leading to the museum proper have twisted wrought-iron hand railings created by blacksmith David Court, another New Hampshire-based artisan.

This space also was expanded to showcase even more of the Currier’s paperweight collection.

A set of stairs leads to American art on the upper level and European, modern and contemporary art focusing on New Hampshire and New England artists on the lower level.

Walking through the central gallery space brings visitors to another of the highlights of the museum’s expansion — the Winter Garden.

The entrance to this expansive 3,600-square-foot café is actually the museum’s original south entrance.

The classical motif mosaics from the 1929 south façade are echoed on the opposite side of the Winter Garden by two large wall paintings by abstract conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

Skylights bring in natural light to illuminate the volume of space, which has plants providing a serene backdrop to the meal service area, complete with wine and beer service, and tables for 60 people.

“And the café will provide wireless Internet connection for those who want to get some work done while eating lunch,” said Leidy

In addition to being the museum’s café, the Winter Garden also will provide reception space for events hosting up to 400 people.

Continuing south from the Winter Garden up a short flight of stairs is the South Gallery, providing additional gallery and exhibition space.

More display space

The 2,000-square-foot Putnam Gallery, in the central space of the South Gallery complex, features hardwood flooring and a wall of glass allowing visitors to look down into the Winter Garden.

The exhibition space is carved by several partial walls and as well as additional enclosed spaces of 3,000 square feet on either side.

Rooms such as these have allowed the Currier to display 50 percent more of its 11,000 works of art than were previously available to the public. Prior to the expansion, only 10 percent to 12 percent of the Currier’s collection was on display.

“One of our goals was to show more of our collection,” said Leidy. “We’ll have more on display for the reopening but eventually this will be exhibit space.”

Moving to the lower floor, visitors will find two new state-of-the-art classrooms outfitted with audiovisual equipment, drop-down projection screens, closets and a small kitchenette. Each classroom seats 60.

Another important part of the expansion is the 180-seat auditorium.

The auditorium is wrapped in dark cherry wood and features full audio and video capabilities as well as comfortable theater-style seats that are staggered and elevated so there are less obstructed views. Clerestory windows let in natural light.

“The space would also work well for film festivals,” said Leidy.

An unexpected bonus was the foyer area just outside the classrooms and the auditorium. The Winter Garden’s skylights three stories above create an atrium effect, making the area an ideal spot for small pre-event receptions.

A small boardroom seating approximately 25 and an art library are also located on the lower level, and are available to the public.

As a humorous but beautiful gesture, concrete artist Schultz painted vibrant flagstone shapes on the lower level’s bathroom floors.

“He took a picture of the mosaics, enlarged it on his computer, and traced it on the floor,” said Leidy of the artist’s design.

While there are several levels to the Currier, every floor and exhibit space is handicapped accessible with the use of convenient elevators.

What patrons won’t typically see are other spaces vital to the functioning of the museum.

Leidy said that, for the first time in a long time, all of the Currier’s employees will be housed within 40 new offices located within the museum itself. Previously, some staffers worked from satellite offices in adjacent buildings.

All new telecommunications systems were installed and computer networks were upgraded.

A full commercial kitchen also is located on the lower level, providing food preparation services for the Winter Garden café.

Critical for new exhibits is the new loading dock. It was designed to sit flush with the street level allowing trucks to offload new works, which can then be easily moved to elevators.

“It might not seem so glamorous, but this is a big improvement,” said Leidy. “Trucks can come in right off the street to unload and not block traffic.”

On schedule and budget

With millions of dollars worth of artwork and priceless artifacts, security is a high priority at the museum.

Exactly what systems were installed was not disclosed. Leidy only smiled and said, “The systems have been made even more sophisticated.”

Something else important to the art are the conditions in which the pieces are displayed.

“We have upgraded our climate control systems so that the Currier remains at a constant 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity year round,” said Leidy. “It’s comfortable for people, but really comfortable for art.”

Surprising for a project of its size, the Currier’s expansion remained largely on schedule and on budget.

According to Leidy, the Currier was expected to reach its $13.4 million capital campaign goal when it reopened.

“The remaining $8 million was financed through a bond,” she said.

The smooth project was also due in large part to the construction team, said Leidy.

“Harvey (construction manager Harvey Construction Corp. of Bedford) and all the contractors were just fabulous,” said Leidy. “They really cared and took an interest in this as a community project.”

Construction crews did hit one snag, however. The Granite State’s moniker is not without reason — work crews hit solid granite ledge during construction of the space where the loading dock is now located.

“We needed some minor blasting and a lot of jack-hammering to remove it,” said Leidy, recounting a rather noisy summer. “It was a big hurdle, very expensive and time-consuming.”

The museum continued to collect art during the construction phase and will be debuting several new pieces.

A newly acquired 3D installation entitled “The Family” by Marisol Escobar — featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 — will be exhibited.

The Currier will also be hosting an Andy Warhol exhibit in September.

In addition to Harvey, other contractors on the project include Rist-Frost Shumway Engineering P.C., Laconia (plumbing, electrical, fire protection, civil engineering); Exergen Corp., Watertown, Mass. (mechanical engineering); LeMessurier Consultants, Cambridge, Mass. (structural engineering); and Richard Burck Associates, Somerville, Mass. (landscape architects).