Campus News

Bowdoin College Museum of Art to Re-Open October 14, 2007

Story posted March 28, 2007

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art will re-open on October 14, 2007, following a renovation and expansion project that showcases the Museum's historic Walker Art Building and its position as the cornerstone of the arts and culture at Bowdoin. Established in 1811, with collections now spanning from the ancient world to the 21st century, and housed in a building designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead and White, the newly restored Bowdoin College Museum of Art will be a vital resource for the campus and community.


The design, by architects Machado and Silvetti Associates of Boston, creatively combines a preservationist's techniques with new architecture that respectfully enhances the old. It integrates the Museum's traditional features with a dramatic new entry pavilion, an inviting glass curtain wall, and a complete renovation of the entire interior of the building. This includes an underground expansion, which provides 63 percent more space than the original building while preserving the landmark structure, and increases the number of galleries from nine to fourteen.

Museum of Art Renovation Project

The Walker Art Building renovation is among the top-priority building projects of The Bowdoin Campaign, which ends in 2009. These projects will have a dramatic impact on student life, reflecting the needs and interests of our diverse and talented student body.

The $20.8 million renovation and expansion — part of the ongoing $250 million Bowdoin Campaign — will enhance the Museum's role as a central component in campus life and the leading edge of arts and culture at Bowdoin. The arts and culture initiative also includes the College's new 290-seat Recital Hall, built inside the College's 1928 McKim, Mead and White-designed Curtis Pool building, which will open in May 2007; the renovation of Pickard Theater inside Memorial Hall; and the construction of Wish Theater in 2000. With the Museum's expansion, access will be significantly increased with the creation of a seminar room, dedicated gallery space for changing exhibitions tied directly to class curricula, and public events in the Museum, providing in-depth engagement for all members of the Bowdoin campus and the Maine community.

The Museum is planning an ambitious roster of exhibitions and programming for its inaugural year focusing on the permanent collection and underscoring the fruitful juxtaposition of the old and the new. Planned exhibitions include the reinstallation of the Museum's famed Assyrian reliefs; Contemporary and Ancient Chinese Art, bringing together works from Bowdoin's Asian collection with contemporary Chinese art; The American Scene, reflecting America's move from European precedents to its own identity through portraits and landscapes; Ancient Art: Ancient Passions, featuring highlights and treasured bronzes, marbles, ceramics and coins; and Modern Times, showcasing alumni collections with works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Kiki Smith, Betye Saar and Glenn Ligon.

"The opening of the restored and expanded Bowdoin College Museum of Art celebrates our role as a leader in college art museums and our mission to broaden knowledge and inspire all our visitors," said Katy Kline, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. "The historic Walker Art Building and the signature entrance pavilion, restored galleries, and new program spaces, will offer audiences enhanced opportunities to view and learn from our rich collections, and allow us to expand our holdings and programs in the coming century."

Architecture and Design

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art's landmark Walker Art Building was commissioned for the College by Harriet and Sophia Walker in honor of their uncle Theophilus Wheeler Walker, a Boston entrepreneur and businessman. The Walker sisters, encyclopedic collectors and supporters of art education, stipulated that the building be used exclusively for art. Designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead and White, the building was completed in 1894 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Museum's brick, limestone and granite fašade is based on Renaissance prototypes, with a grand stair leading to a dramatically shadowed loggia flanked by lion sculptures modeled on those at the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy. The original interior consists of a central rotunda surrounded by three sky-lit galleries on the entrance level. The dramatic rotunda is capped by a high coffered dome.

In 2003, Bowdoin College embarked on the renovation and expansion to preserve and protect the 100-year-old Walker Art Building, expand galleries and other program spaces, and improve storage facilities and HVAC systems. The restored and expanded museum retains the building's iconic features while upgrading its climate control and mechanical systems to become a state-of-the-art facility capable of organizing and presenting exhibitions on a national scale.

The renovation and expansion increases the Museum's total space by 63 percent, from 19,980 to 32,550 square feet. This includes 2,176 additional square feet of gallery space, which brings the total available gallery space to 9,321 square feet and the number of galleries from seven to fourteen.

Challenging improvements to underground spaces involved hand-digging 229 four-foot-wide pits below the existing 19th-century stone footings and excavating through granite rubble walls as thick as three feet with diamond-tipped wire saws. The building's existing floor slabs were removed and the rubble wall foundations were "underpinned" to gain more than four feet of ceiling height in the Museum's lower level. The result is a coherent collection of spacious new galleries, all with a clearer relationship to the historical galleries on the upper floor, and better-organized administration and support spaces, art storage areas, and mechanical spaces.

Above-ground architectural elements include the Museum's new entry pavilion — a dramatic glass and bronze structure housing a glass elevator and "floating" steel staircase — and a new, town-facing building addition, featuring an expansive glass curtain wall behind which the Museum will display its celebrated Assyrian reliefs. The building's original dedication plaque is visible from a skylight in the back gallery above the curtain wall, bringing visitors face-to-face with the equal importance placed on the Museum's storied past and its progressive future.

"The renovation and expansion of the 1894 McKim, Mead and White landmark building posed major architectural and institutional challenges that required creative answers. We are returning to Bowdoin an expanded facility that complies with all contemporary museum standards with new building components that engage the public in novel ways and provide easy, inviting access to all those who want to share in Bowdoin's artistic wealth," said architect Jorge Silvetti. "We have done all that while leaving the defining attributes of the original building intact, preserving its iconic nature on campus, in the town and in the history of American architecture; and adding architectural components that clearly speak to the future role that the Museum and its programs will have in the life of the college and of American art."


The Bowdoin College Museum of Art, one of the oldest college art collections in the nation, began with a gift of 70 paintings and a portfolio of Old Master drawings bequeathed to the College by James Bowdoin III in 1811. Its current collections encompass more than 14,000 objects in categories including Ancient; European; American; Non-Western; Modern & Contemporary; and Prints, Drawings and Photography.

Notable works include the murals decorating the Museum's rotunda by leading painters of the American Renaissance: Elihu Vedder, Kenyon Cox, Abbott Thayer and John LaFarge. Each artist painted an allegorical representation of one of the four cities perceived at the time as most central to the development of western art. The paintings were commissioned by architect Charles McKim at the time of construction.

The antiquities collections contain over 1,800 Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine objects and constitute one of the most comprehensive compilations of ancient art in any small college museum in North America. Bowdoin's six imposing relief sculptures from the Assyrian King Assurnasirpal's palace (built in the 9th century B.C., destroyed in the 7th century B.C. and given to the College in 1860) are a treasure of the collection. In the renovated Museum, these reliefs will occupy the prominent wall in the new gallery on the rear of the building, where they can be seen through the glass curtain wall by visitors outside the Museum.

The Museum's American collection features one of the most important groupings of colonial and Federal portraits, with presidential portraits of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison by Gilbert Stuart and works by Robert Feke, John Singleton Copley, Joseph Blackburn, and Rembrandt Peale. It also includes works by 19th- and 20th-century American artists such as Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, John Sloan, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, and Andrew Wyeth, and an archive of artifacts and memorabilia from Winslow Homer's studio.

The Arts at Bowdoin

As a cultural beacon that draws attention to the energy and excellence of the College, the Museum is a gathering place for the College and the community, with a central location on the College Quadrangle. Above all, the Museum is a teaching facility, with the core of its mission to keep its rich collections within immediate reach of Bowdoin students, faculty, scholars, and art lovers. Its emphasis on the study of original objects as part of the Bowdoin curriculum makes the Museum the ultimate cross-disciplinary and multicultural enterprise. Classes from sociology to government to environmental studies make use of the prints, photographs and other works in the collections.

"Our belief is that a liberal arts education is the best way to shape informed and responsible citizens for our society and the world. In this respect, the re-opened Bowdoin College Museum of Art will be a vital cultural resource for our students, faculty, and community. The restoration re-affirms the College's centuries of dedication to great art and architecture, while the expansion is a prominent example of our continued commitment to arts and culture through the Bowdoin Campaign," said Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College.

The Bowdoin Campaign, believed to be the largest fundraising campaign in Maine history, aims to raise $250 million for the College over five years. As part of the Campaign, a number of renovation and expansion projects are underway that use the College's historic structures to physically and programmatically integrate the visual and performing arts throughout campus. In addition to the Walker Art Building restoration and expansion, Bowdoin's new 290-seat Recital Hall, converted inside the 1928 McKim, Mead and White-designed Curtis Pool building, will open in May 2007. This follows the 2000 renovation of Pickard Theater inside Memorial Hall and the adjacent construction of Wish Theater to create two main performance spaces for the College.

Inaugural Exhibitions

For its inaugural year, the Museum will reacquaint visitors with the range and scope of its collections and many of its celebrated gems through a number of exhibitions. Highlights include:

  • Bowdoin's Assyrian Reliefs, some of the most significant examples of ancient art in the U.S., reinstalled in their new location
  • Ancient Art: Ancient Passions and Ancient Art: Immortal Desire, showcasing masterpieces from the Museum's ancient art collections such as the Attic Red-figure Kylix painted by the "Bowdoin Eye Painter," a Roman marble bust of Antoninus Pius, considered one of the best imperial portraits in the U.S., and an Egyptian cartonnage mask
  • The American Scene and Seeing and Believing: Five Centuries in Europe, showcasing masterpieces from the Museum's American and European collections, including works by Feke, Peto, and Stuart; and Moeyaert, Monet and Pontormo
  • Contemporary and Ancient Chinese Art, which references connections between past and present generations of Chinese artists with works from Bowdoin's Asian art collections
  • Eve Sussman's and the Rufus Corporation's 89 Seconds at Alcazar, a 12-minute restaging of Diego Velasquez's Las Meninas, presented in the Museum's new media room
  • Highlights of Prints and Drawings from 1500 to 1960, curated by alumnus and print curator David Becker, incorporating works on loan from alumni collections
  • The Walker Sisters and Collecting in Victorian Boston, featuring select objects from the collection of the Walker sisters, the Museum's original benefactors, presented in the context of a domestic Boston interior
  • The Human Figure - 2500 B.C. to 2000 A.D., which restores the Rotunda to its original purpose as a hall for sculpture

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