Miami University's art museum is itself a handsome work of art

An on-campus art museum is a great advantage to any college or university situated at some distance from a major art center. This is especially true if the museum building itself is a work of art with carefully designed facilities for the intelligent display of art, and if it houses a collection that, no matter how small, is representative and good. The Miami University Art Museum here qualifies on all counts. Its starkly modern structure, designed by Walter Netsch and completed in 1978, is both strikingly handsome and a remarkably effective and beautiful place to exhibit art. And its collection, which runs the gamut from pre-Columbian works to dramatically modern paintings, prints, and sculptures, is both wide-ranging and of excellent quality.

The museum occupies the crest of a gently sloping site overlooking a large pond next to a wooded area. Each of its five major galleries is oriented to views of these woods, varying in size and shape. To provide the appropriately scaled environment for the different kinds of work on display, the galleries sequentially expand in size according to a strict geometric formula devised by the architect. The first is a small gallery for works on paper; the second increases in volume to accommodate slightly larger objects; the third is large enough to house huge paintings and three-dimensional pieces; and the final two are intimate in scale and are used to exhibit smaller objects.

In addition, media alcoves are built into a high wall that separates the galleries from the storage, research, and office areas. These contain rear projection screens to present work that cannot be installed within the gallery spaces, and they also include pocketed walls with sliding display panels. For lectures, concerts, and screenings, Netsch designed a 115-seat auditorium that overlooks a wooded area and that is as comfortable as it is compact.

Viewing this museum and its exhibitions was a very real pleasure. The building itself, its suitability to the display of a very wide variety of art, and its physical location add up to a unique viewing experience. The works on display during my visit ranged from a superb textile exhibition to a first-rate selection of paintings and sculpture. Included among the latter were a Constable oil sketch, two remarkable 19th-century German landscapes, one of Gene Davis's most beautiful canvases, and works by Dine, Kelly, Hofmann, Lichtenstein, Marca-Relli, and Poons. I was also taken by a large retrospective of works in glass by Dominick Labino. It will remain on view through June 2.

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