Probably the most unique feature of the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art building is its diagonal set of staircases — exasperating to some, amusing to others.
So it's fitting that when director David Brenneman gives me a tour of the soon-to-be renovated museum, we start at the foot of the stairwell by the main entrance.
And it's the triangular configuration of the Bloomington-based museum, designed by I.M. Pei, that dictated the shape of the stairs — and more.
"If you read the building in terms of its triangular shape, you'll see triangles in the floor," says Brenneman. "When you get into some of the galleries, you'll see triangles in the ceiling."
The triangular shape of the museum, built in 1982, seems in retrospect like a harbinger for I.M. Pei's future building designs. If you look up at the ceiling at the triangular skylight, you see an echo of one of his most famous works, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, France, completed in 1989. But it's not the shape of the building or the stairs that are the impetus for the museum renovation which will start in May of 2017 — made possible by a $15 million gift by Sidney and Lois Eskenazi — concluding by or before the fall of 2020.
The reason for renovation, Brenneman says, is linked to the aging infrastructure of the Museum and the need to update it for the benefit of the contemporary museum goer.
"It's really two things," he says. "It's enhancing and expanding the collections' display, and it's also creating these spaces and programs and activities so we can really connect people with art, and connect them in multiple levels and different ways. And the architecture is following accordingly, in terms of us creating spaces and rooms where those activities will take place."
Brenneman and I sit down later in his rhombus-shaped office to talk in more detail about the renovation. But first he gives me a tour of the special exhibitions wing where Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's photographed collages share space with 25 works by 18th-century Italian master Giambattista Tiepolo and his son Domenico. Both of these exhibits are on display until Feb. 5, 2017.
We toured the Tiepolo exhibit first.
"Tiepolo's not a household name but frankly in terms of late-18th-century European art, particularly Domenico but his father as well ... these were some of the greatest artists to put pen to paper," says Brenneman. "So part of what our mission is, is to not only to go over the history of art that everyone knows but also to find things to bring new knowledge and new ideas to the table, and I would say that's something that this exhibition does."
It was the Tiepolo-directed scholarly interest of Brenneman's predecessor, Heidi Gealt, that ultimately inspired Columbus, Ind.-based Tony Moravec to donate this body of work to the museum.
Next we check out the work of Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, who certainly brings new ideas to the table. Brenneman points to "Falling Water," a depiction of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural marvel. He made it using chocolate syrup as his paint medium. And then there's his "After Warhol" which depicts two portraits of the "Mona Lisa" side by side, one painted in peanut butter, one in jelly.
Muniz's method, in the aforementioned works, is to create a painting or collage and then have it photographed and displayed as a large-scale print.
"One of his ideas, one of the things that he's become very interested in is this old art historical notion of tricking the eye," says Brenneman. "The French term is trompe l'oeil. This is something that goes back to classical antiquity."
Brenneman then gives me a whirlwind tour of the museum's permanent exhibitions. We see examples of 5,000 year old Greek sculpture. We see paintings by Diego Rivera and Picasso. There's also a complete sets of Marcel Duchamp's "Readymades."
"We own about 45,000 works of art; it's a very large collection," says Brenneman. "We're actually in the top 10 of American university art museums in terms of size of collection. We can tell the history of human beings making art, through the history of human beings making art from all over the world."
When we sit down in his office, we talk a little bit about the coming renovation. The most drastic change will be moving the IU art library — currently located in the museum — into the main library building. And the museum will make more room for exhibition space by moving its storage to offsite facilities.
The exact blueprints haven't been drawn up yet. The final configuration, however, will certainly include a center for conservation, space for hands-on learning, seminar spaces and a center for teaching and education. And during the transition, the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art will devote time to putting its collections online, which is intrinsic to their goal of making the museum more interactive.
"One of the things that we really want to do is teach people to use our collections," says Brenneman. "The idea is that we want to create a center for teaching to bring in both university teachers and K-12 teachers and then send them out with tools and skills to be able to use their skills to be able to integrate our collections into their teaching."