After lengthy renovations, IU museum will be a 'much more engaging' facility, director says

  • March 20, 2017
Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Michael Reschke

Ask David Brenneman why a $30 million renovation of the Eskenazi Museum of Art on the IU campus is necessary, and he’ll tell you it’s simply because buildings get old.

“Museums are basically these incredible preservation machines,” he said recently from his office on the third floor of the museum. “And like any machine, the parts get old, need to be replaced, need to be updated, and I’m simplifying, but that’s basically why buildings need to be renovated.”

Keep talking to him, though, and you’ll find there is another reason. It’s extraordinary for a small Midwestern town to have a museum with such an extensive collection.

“If we were in just about any Southern major city, we would be the major city art museum. We’d be the encyclopedic collection,” Brenneman said. “It’s hard to understand that, to grasp that, but I’m telling you it’s true.”

Before being appointed director of the Eskenazi Museum in 2015, Brenneman spent 13 years as a curator and director of collections and exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the premier art museum in the southeastern United States.

He understands what it means to have original paintings by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock in a city like Bloomington with fewer than 90,000 people. He also understands many people aren’t aware of the gems contained within the triangular concrete structure in the heart of Indiana University’s flagship campus.

“I think part of our challenge is no one knows what’s inside this building,” Brenneman said. “In a way, we’ve kind of made the building the main feature of who we are.”

The building is impressive.

It was designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. Construction began in 1978 and after opening in stages, it was completed in 1982.

It’s essentially two triangles connected by a glass atrium. The original design included a bridge on the third floor that would connect the triangles. That was “value-engineered out,” Brenneman said, but the renovation calls for adding that bridge.

From the beginning, it was also understood that the fine arts library, housed in the building’s eastern triangle, would be moved if the museum needed more space.

“That time has come,” Brenneman said.

The museum has about 45,000 objects in its collection, but only a fraction can be displayed at one time. Most is hidden in storage.

The building itself is also out of date. For reference, Brenneman pointed to the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., which was also designed by Pei. It opened in 1978 and a major renovation was just completed.

“So, we’re at a point in the building’s life where the systems need to be changed out,” Brenneman said.

Changing those systems will require moving the museum’s entire collection out of the building. It’s a monumental task that has already begun. Brenneman estimates it will take another six months to complete after the museum closes to the public May 14. The actual building renovations will take about a year.

While renovations won’t expand beyond the existing footprint of the building, taking over the fine arts library will add about 15,000 square feet to the museum. This will increase the total square footage up to about 115,000, putting it among the top 10 largest American university art museums, Brenneman said.

A new walkway in front of the museum will direct traffic past windows displaying pieces that aren’t sensitive to light so people walking by can see what’s inside. Those windows have been covered up for years to keep sunlight from affecting special exhibitions. A new walkway will also be added to the north side of the building, leading visitors through the sculpture terrace and into the museum. The Light Totem that illuminates the exterior of the building with multicolored displays that students lie on the ground to watch will remain in place, said Abe Morris, museum spokesman. But he’s not sure if it will stay on throughout the closure.

Once the physical renovations are completed, it will take another six months to move everything back in. The fall 2019 semester is the target for reopening to the public.

The move will give Brenneman and the museum’s staff a chance to update displays that have remained largely the same since about 1982. The museum has 33 full-time employees and about as many graduate assistants.

Brenneman expects a high percentage of those people to keep their jobs during the closure, as there will be plenty of work to do. Rough plans exist, but exactly how displays will be reconfigured still needs to be determined. The plan will, however, provide more flexibility to rotate items on and off view.

Restoration and maintenance of works is an ongoing process that will continue during the closure.

There will also be a huge effort to update the museum’s online catalog. The museum recently launched a new section on its website featuring images of more than 750 objects. There is a more complete online catalog used within the museum, but even that is missing images of some objects. There have long been plans to photograph all the items in the museum’s collections and eventually create a database.

The museum’s volunteer docents will be involved in outreach efforts at area schools during the closure. Armed with tool kits that include images and possibly 3-D printed replicas of items in the museum’s collections, they will bring the museum to the community, something Brenneman said he plans to continue even after the renovation is completed.

Morris said the museum is trying to find alternative sites for the elementary school student works that are displayed during Youth Art Month. Other museums in town seem to be the most logical choice, as the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center already displays work from middle and high school students.

The gift shop and cafe within the Eskenazi Museum will move to another location on campus during the closure. A location has not been determined yet, but there are plans for a moving sale before they relocate.

Some parts of the museum, however, will be inaccessible during the closure. Much of the collection will be in storage and not available for viewing. It’s not what Brenneman would like, but he’s confident the short-term inconvenience will result in long-term satisfaction.

“Renovation projects, they’re intensive, they’re disruptive, but as I’ve learned through leading other projects, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, which is that when we reopen we’re just going to be a much better facility, a much more accessible, a much more engaging place to be,” he said.


1978: Construction begins on the museum, designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei.

1982: Building completed; museum opens to the public.

May 2016: Museum renamed for Lois and Sidney Eskenazi after $15 million donation.

May 14, 2017: Museum closing to the public for renovations.

Fall semester 2019: The target for reopening the museum to the public.

By the numbers

$30 million: Cost of the upcoming renovation of the Eskenazi Museum of Art on the IU campus.

45,000: Objects in the museum’s collection.

15,000: Square feet that will be added to the museum, increasing the total square footage to about 115,000.

33: Number of full-time employees, with about as many graduate assistants.