THE CLOWES Pavilion has always been one of Newfields’s most idiosyncratic spaces. While many of the museum’s galleries are surrounded by generic-looking white walls, Clowes features a stone-floored atrium with limestone columns, a fountain, and a staircase leading to a series of small, ornate galleries patterned after the Clowes family home. Originally unveiled in 1972, it houses priceless works collected over many decades by the Clowes family—mostly paintings by Old Masters such as Rembrandt, El Greco, and Rubens. Three years ago, the museum’s leaders decided the location was ready for a refresh. And behind the closed doors of the renovation, a new philosophy took hold at the institution.
For generations, Newfields (like most art museums) has tended to group displays around time periods and artistic movements. Over the next few years, however, it plans to roll out “global thematic displays” presenting works from disparate times and cultures linked together by a single theme. Museum leaders hope the strategy makes art more accessible to visitors who may not know much about, say, neoclassicism. The Clowes Pavilion is one of the first spaces to show work in this way, and the approach will appear in more and more areas at Newfields later this year.
Overseeing the update of both the physical space and the way its assets are exhibited fell to Annette Schlagenhauff, the curator of European art, and Kjell Wangensteen, associate curator of European art. “We were given free rein to think broadly out of the box and try new things,” Schlagenhauff says. “As far as we know, nothing of this sort has been tried at any other American art museum.”
Schlagenhauff and Wangensteen spent the better part of the last three years rethinking the Pavilion’s displays. Approximately 35 pieces from the original collection will each be matched with a work from another time or culture, creating interesting, sometimes jarring, juxtapositions. “Our docents are very excited about talking about connections and differences between works from very different times and very different places,” Wangensteen says. “They can’t wait to speak about the collection in a way that we never have before.”
The space itself has also changed. Formerly, finding it required guests to navigate a maze of halls and unrelated display areas. Those have been consolidated into one large space that creates a straight shot from the main entrance. Decorative moldings in some of the exhibit spaces were removed to establish more wall space, but the biggest change is to the atrium. Its signature limestone columns, staircase, and fountain remain, but the ceiling now sports a massive LED screen composed of 520 high-definition panels that can create a faithful reproduction of the outdoor sky or any number of other effects.
Not surprisingly, sifting through the collections to find interesting counterpoints to the Clowes Pavilion’s Old Masters took a great deal of thought and time. Especially since the Pavilion’s relatively small spaces couldn’t accommodate often enormous examples of modern art. “We had one work that we wanted there,” Wangensteen says, “but we had to rethink it because the painting just wouldn’t fit.”