After one year, museum expansion nears completion

LAUREL — There is more than meets the eye when it comes to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.

Hidden from public view in the lower-level vault are all sorts of treasures, including the painting “A Child’s First Steps” by 19th century French artist Jean-Francois Millet.

The work, copied famously by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, has seen some refined company.

“He rarely gets to go out at all, but when he goes, he goes to fun places,” said museum director George Bassi concerning the piece. “The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). The Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Those are the only two times he’s ever left the building.”

These days, Millet’s painting has more companions than usual in the vault, as the museum undergoes major renovations.

The short-term pain, with bare walls currently in most of the galleries, will pay some long-term dividends.

The LRMA has now completed 80 percent of the construction for its new gallery and storage space, thanks to a $5 million fundraising campaign that began its silent phase in mid-2010.

The museum broke ground on construction in January 2012.

“We’re a little topsy-turvy, and we’ll be topsy-turvy for a while,” Bassi said.

Museum officials plan to have the renovations ready for a public viewing and dedication on May 1 — the 90th anniversary of the museum’s opening.

The museum opened in 1923 as a memorial to Lauren Eastman Rogers, the only son and only grandson of one of the town’s founding families. Rogers had died in 1921 at the age of 23 from complications of appendicitis.

What museum-goers will see on the anniversary is the largest expansion to the museum since the era of its founding and construction from 1923-25. It will include:

— 3,400 square feet in space for two new galleries to display contemporary art pieces, post-1950. The 2,000-square-foot main gallery also will function as a venue for concerts, lectures and educational programming.

— A new 8-foot glass chandelier by Washington-based glass artist Dale Chihuly. It will hang in the museum’s stairwell gallery that serves as an entrance to the new wing.

— Retrofitted lighting. Bassi said the new lighting will give the appearance of the museum’s natural skylight lighting, but will block out UV rays harmful to the artwork, as well as drastically reduce the museum’s energy consumption.

“Even though we’ve added 5,400 square feet, we’re actually expecting our energy costs to go down,” Bassi said.

It’s what museum-goers won’t see that may be the most important change of all.

The museum has more than tripled its storage space by adding 2,000 square feet underneath the new gallery wing.

Bassi said the new space will free up the old vault for large objects, such as crates and pedestals. It also will remove the single biggest obstacle to the museum’s growth: crammed storage space.

The museum’s various collections include paintings by European and American masters, as well as British Georgian silver and Native American baskets.

The gallery space only displays a fragment of those collections, however, with 400 of the museum’s 2,000 pieces up at any given time.

The new space will house the entire storage collection and then some, with Bassi joking that the extra space should accommodate collection additions for another century.

“It was hindering what we collected and how we collected,” Bassi said of the current vault. “This will give us an opportunity to grow.”

That growth was made possible by a very successful fundraising campaign. When LRMA officials went public with the capital campaign in September 2011, the museum had raised $4.25 million.

By the time it wrapped up in May 2012, the campaign surpassed $5.1 million, with 80 percent to 90 percent of that money coming from donors in or from Jones County.

Of that fundraising, $1.5 million will be invested in the museum’s $10 million endowment.

The capital campaign’s executive committee chairman Bill Mullins said the campaign generated 255 donors.

Around 70 donors will be recognized on a donor wall in the new wing, for their contributions of more than $25,000 each.

But each gift was vital, said Mullins.

“I was amazed at the number of $100 and $50 gifts along with larger gifts,” said Mullins, a Laurel attorney. “It shows you the popularity of the institution and the worthiness of the cause.”

Around 25,000 people annually visit the museum. The museum also hosts yearly tours for elementary school students in the Laurel area.

“When you look at it that way, a lot of people have benefited from that museum,” Mullins said.

 

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