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JAMuse: The Johnson Museum Turns 40

JAMuse: The Johnson Museum Turns 40

A. D. White and the Dream of a Museum for Cornell

Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, was a diplomat, historian, and educator who cofounded the University with Ezra Cornell in 1865. Though White was largely responsible for recruiting faculty for the new institution, he was instrumental in the development of the University’s library and its other collections through both his own purchases and encouraging gifts from others.

Over the course of his career, White amassed a book collection of some thirty thousand volumes that he would donate to the University. This included an outstanding architectural library of four thousand books and a large group of architectural photographs. Today, White’s collection is housed primarily in the Cornell Archives and in the beautiful Andrew Dickson White Reading Room (formally known as the “President White Library of History and Political Science”) at Uris Library. The room was designed by William Henry Miller, the same architect of White’s mansion on East Avenue in the heart of the campus.

At one time White harbored hopes that the Fiske Mansion (today the site of Chi Psi fraternity) would become a museum after Jennie McGraw Fiske’s untimely death in 1881, but that was not to be. However, White continued acquiring works of art for the campus, and in 1911 he accepted a gift from his friend General Rush C. Hawkins: Gari Melchers’s painting The Communion, which won the Grand Prix for the American section at the Paris International Exposition of 1889. Today this painting is on view in the Museum’s Appel Lobby.

The A. D. White Museum, 1953-1973

In March 1953 it was announced that the A. D. White House—previously home to three University presidents—would be refurbished as an art museum. This was an appropriate compliment to the memory of A. D. White, who had strenuously argued for a museum on campus. The mansion was also to house women graduate students—perhaps they were intended to provide a kind of 24/7 security system!

Funding for the renovations was provided by Ernest I. White, Class of 1893, and by November the galleries were completed. The collections that had previously been stored in various vaults around campus now had a home. One of the most important collections was that of William P. Chapman, Class of 1895, who began making gifts in the 1940s. “The very existence of your uncle’s collection here was perhaps the single factor prompting me to work for and finally establish this important facility,” President Malott wrote to Chapman’s niece. Chapman’s gift of nearly three thousand prints and photographs remains the core of the Johnson Museum’s collection.

The first director of the White Museum was Alan R. Solomon, who had received undergraduate and masters degrees at Harvard University. Solomon trained there at the Fogg Museum, working with the legendary Paul J. Sachs, the Harvard scholar who developed “The Museum Course,” one of the first classes in the country to combine an appreciation for art objects with the practicalities of museum work. Sachs’s grandson Frank Robinson served as the Johnson Museum’s second director from 1992 to 2011.

Solomon was intrigued by the art of his own time, and through contacts with the influential Leo Castelli Gallery in New York he purchased two major works, Robert Rauschenberg’s Migration and Lee Bontecou’s Flit. Solomon firmly believed in the same basic mission of the Museum today: to enrich the lives of Cornell students and of the community. The first exhibition, a collection of photographs, was lent by the Museum of Modern Art. This set a high bar, and over the next twenty years exhibitions ranged from Piranesi prints to American Impressionism, often highlighting notable work of Cornell graduates such as Arthur Dove, Class of 1903, and Margaret Bourke-White, Class of 1927. Artist residencies included Edwin Dickinson in 1957 and Jim Dine a decade later. But the exhibition that will forever be connected to Cornell is the influential Earth Art show of 1969.

I. M. Pei's Herbert F. Johnson Museum, 1973

In 1961 artist and Professor J. O. Mahoney was one of many voices to suggest that a new museum should be built that could better attract donors and other benefactors. Mahoney’s choice for the site was the northwest corner of the campus, but there was much disagreement. Commanding magnificent views of the town and Cayuga Lake, it was considered “sacred ground” that Cornell’s founders, A. D. White and Ezra Cornell, had insisted would remain pristine.

However, by 1888 a building named for S. F. B. Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph, was built on this site for the chemistry department. A. D. White, who had resigned as University president in 1885, was on an extended trip to Europe and it was completed prior to his return. In his autobiography he called the building a “sad mistake.” It proved to have a sad history as well: In 1916, a fire leveled the two upper floors; thereafter it was patched up and continued to be used as a chemistry building into the 1920s, despite additional fires. It was demolished in 1954 and turned into a parking lot.

Options for an appropriate site for a campus museum were limited. Between 1963 and 1965 a committee met to study the basic requirements of an art museum. They agreed that the essential function was to be educational, and that the performing arts would not be part of the Museum’s purview. Their final recommendation proposed an exciting opportunity: “A new museum on the Morse Hall site calls for the highest standards of architectural design. . . . This building offers an unparalleled opportunity to bring to the campus a new sense of quality. The selection of the architect deserves the most careful consideration.”

In 1967 President Perkins appointed Tom Leavitt, then director of the Santa Barbara Museum, as director of the proposed museum. In offering him the job, Perkins assigned Leavitt “a central role in the choice of the architect and the programming of the [new] museum.”

Herbert Fisk Johnson, a 1922 graduate of Cornell and president of S. C. Johnson and Sons, Inc., gave $4 million dollars in the form of company stock toward the project. His most important stipulation was “that the architect for the new museum should be a young, promising American architect—in other words, the Frank Lloyd Wright of today.” Given that Johnson’s own home, Wingspread, and the Johnson Wax buildings were designed by Wright, this is not surprising.

The committee to nominate an architect for the Museum was established, and the two finalists were Marcel Breuer, who had just completed the Whitney Museum, and I. M. Pei, who ultimately was selected.

The New Wing, 2011

By their nature, museum collections are ever-expanding. In 2002, discussions began regarding building a new Johnson Museum wing. The collection had grown from nine thousand objects to more than thirty thousand, and storage areas were bursting at the seams. More faculty were bringing their students to the Museum to hold class sessions, with the one designated classroom in constant demand. In order to grow our programs and outreach, we would need to expand.

The new wing included space for a 150-seat lecture room, new education offices and a workshop studio, a large exhibition gallery, expanded art storage, a Japanese garden (designed by Marc Keane, Class of 1979), and a separate lobby entrance to accommodate school groups. We worked again with John Sullivan, Class of 1962, the architect-in-charge for the 1973 building and still with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 2008. The space, approximately 16,000 square feet, was funded by government and foundation grants and private gifts.

The course of construction went smoothly save for one discovery: When crews broke through to the basement of the old Morse Hall, they discovered thirty pounds of mercury near an old drainage pipe, a remnant from the chemistry building in the 1920s. Safe removal of the mercury delayed progress for several weeks.

On a picture-perfect fall weekend in October 2011, the new wing opened to the public and the Johnson Museum welcomed its third director, Stephanie Wiles. The collection has continued to grow, our visitors number more than 80,000 annually, and the number of classes held here has significantly increased. If A. D. White came back to campus today, he might be perplexed by Pei’s style of architecture, but there’s no doubt he would be delighted to see his vision for a museum fulfilled.

JAMuse: The Johnson Museum Turns 40

In conjunction with the Johnson’s fortieth anniversary, we asked architect and photographer Alan Chimacoff, Class of 1963, Arch ’64, to create a photographic essay celebrating the Museum’s architecture and its integration into the landscape of the campus and community. The Museum’s profile has become one of the iconic landmarks of Ithaca, visible from nearly every vantage point in town, so the early controversies surrounding its construction are still understandable: Would it block views from Franklin and Sibley Hall to the west? Obliterate the view of the lake from the crest of Libe Slope? Look out of place amid the New York State limestone of “Stone Row,” Morrill, White, and McGraw Halls?

Fully aware of these issues, architect I. M. Pei chose to build upward to take advantage of the views, rather than run low along the ridge of Libe Slope. The fifth floor was originally intended for the print collection, with a viewing platform running along the perimeters, but the fragility of works on paper and their sensitivity to light determined that the Asian collection would be housed there instead, much to Pei’s disappointment.

The distinctive look and neutral color of the board-formed concrete is complemented by the numerous windows Pei used to engage the beauty of the landscape with the building itself. On almost every level, from the ground up, windows on one side are matched by corresponding windows opposite, enhancing the feeling of openness and transparency. “Seeing through” the building became an essential part of the architecture and, for Pei, justified its vertical orientation.

In May 1975, the American Institute of Architects gave Pei their annual Honor Award. Citing the Johnson Museum, they noted “an appropriate use of unusual form . . . in that the building acts as a ‘window’: the solids are the frame of the view, the void acts as the transparency.” The importance of this idea to the overall beauty of the building is clearly apparent in Alan Chimacoff’s thoughtful photographic paean.