Gibbes creating a 'walk through history'

The Gibbes Museum of Art will have more gallery space, classrooms and studios after a 16-month renovation.

The permanent collection at the Gibbes Museum of Art will "walk you through history" once it is reinstalled, thanks to a $100,000 grant.

The collection will make its way upstairs as part of a 16-month renovation. The grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, announced earlier this month, will be used to help arrange the art in chronological order in the improved space.

This will allow viewers to see the progression of artistic trends and styles, as well as get a peek into Southern history. The permanent collection consists largely of art from the Lowcountry and American South, ranging from Colonial times to the present day.

The grant comes from the Luce Foundation's American Art Program, which focuses on funding "all types of museums and all scales" of American art collections, most of which are in the United States, according to program director Ellen Holtzman.

Luce awards grants to major museums such as New York's Museum of Modern Art as well as to local and regional museums such as the Gibbes.

In 2014, the Luce Foundation awarded 13 grants, ranging from $1.5 million to the Yale University Art Gallery to $25,000 to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Md.

The Gibbes Museum had applied for grants from Luce in the past, and this is the first award it has received from the foundation.

"Getting that validation and support from a great foundation says a lot about the museum," marketing and communications manager Amy Mercer said. "We're really excited about the future."

The foundation's American Art Program has been focusing on funding reinstallations this year, Holtzman said, so the timing was right for the Gibbes Museum.

"The building is very beautiful, and the fact that they were renovating the beautiful dome and the art would be showcased in a nicer environment ... it seemed like an opportune moment," Holtzman said.

The permanent collection's move is part of a 16-month, $13.5 million renovation that will allow a 30 percent increase in gallery space. The work will begin early this fall. About 600 pieces of art from the museum's permanent collection will be showcased on the second floor, more than double what is currently on display on the museum's first floor.

Because of the size of the collection and the museum, only about 2 percent to 4 percent of the permanent collection can be displayed at any one time, according to Zinnia Willits, director of collections. The pieces are rotated about every six months "to give the public a wider view of the depth and breadth of the permanent collection," she said.

"We are simply out of space. The existing museum building was constructed in 1905 when the art collection contained significantly fewer works."

The largest space on the second floor is more reminiscent of a ballroom than a gallery with its ample open space and echo-inducing high ceilings. Custom displays will be built for the museum's collection of miniature portraits, the country's third largest.

"Right now, the second floor is just a big empty space," Mercer said. "During the renovation, structures will be built to display more art and the room will make more sense."

A doorway leading to new gallery space also will be added to the main second floor space.

The museum's stained-glass dome, capping a rotunda facing Meeting Street, will be cleaned, and the carpeting will be taken out of the rotunda to reveal original marble flooring. The space will be used for sculpture display, which will allow the now-shuttered windows to be opened, flooding the rotunda with light.

Sunlight can damage paintings and illustrations but will not harm sculpture, Mercer said.

The second floor now houses temporary and traveling exhibits in the largest gallery space. After the renovation, those nonpermanent collections will be displayed on the third floor.

The first floor, now home to most of the displayed permanent collection, will be dedicated to studio and classroom space.

The first floor will be free to all visitors, with galleries on the second and third floors requiring paid admission.

While addressing the major problem of limited space, the renovation also will address what Mercer says make up the majority of visitor's complaints: the peeling paint, dingy carpeting and other symptoms of wear-and-tear that come with a nearly 110-year-old building.

"We're going to make this space a beautiful space where your experience won't be limited," Mercer said. "You'll be able to enjoy the art without your eyes being drawn to the peeling paint on the walls."

Reach Amanda Coyne at 937-5592 or on Twitter at @AmandaCCoyne