Boston museum unveils its brightly refurbished Evans wing

The stately Museum of Fine Arts here is bursting with new life. One wing of the Greek Revival facility has been closed for a massive four-year renovation and climate-control program. Today the doors to the Robert Dawson Evans Galleries for Paintings will reopen to the public.

Before the improvements, entering the Evans wing was, as one observer put it, ``like walking into a gloomy cave.'' The plastic skylights had yellowed so that the light was tinted and dim. Some paintings were covered with old varnish and some had been marred by poor restoration. The oak floors had been trodden to the point where they couldn't be resanded. The pattern of traffic through the wing was full of dead ends, forcing patrons to retrace their steps.

``The feeling was awfully tired,'' says Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., curator of American painting.

But now, ceilings have been repainted, marble cleaned, and track lighting hung. Sunshine glows through new light-diffusing skylights. Freshly cleaned and restored paintings hang smartly on fabric-covered walls. Slick new oak floors gleam in every gallery.

Perhaps the most vivid transformation is that of the old lecture hall into the airy Garden Court Gallery, housing modern American paintings. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a tree-lined court and allow the paintings to be seen by natural light in daytime. The transformation also opens up the circulation pattern.

Another dramatic touch is the opening of doors in a long series of galleries, enabling a museumgoer to stand at one end of the wing and look down a hallway that stretches for two blocks.

Designers I.M. Pei & Partners as well as the museum staff researched MFA storerooms and found samples of the original limestone, marble, flooring, and wall coverings. The molding has been carefully painted to blend in with the surrounding green marble. The only way to tell the difference is to touch them both (the marble is colder).

But the $11.5 million project did more than restore natural beauty to the facility designed by Guy Lowell in 1915. The MFA's main objective, says Dr. Stebbins, was preservation of the paintings.

``Paintings suffer from acid and dust,'' he says. ``Our greatest obligation is to preserve paintings for future use, and we weren't doing that as well as we should. Now we have a highly sophisticated climate-control system, which should preserve them for a long time.''

Installation of the climate-control system was a massive job that involved tearing down walls, replacing bricks, and adding hundreds of miles of duct work. Museum officials say it would have been cheaper just to build a new building, but their respect for the past compelled them to take on the renovation.

The new Evans wing, with 12 galleries for American art and 14 galleries for European works, doubles the exhibition space of the former wing.

The 120,000 square feet of space on three floors also accommodate new offices and modern storage areas for paintings.

The new galleries hold 700 paintings from the museum's fine collection of European and American paintings. Some of the works have not been seen in the four years the wing was closed.

In the European galleries one can view works by such artists as El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner, Millet, Manet, Monet, Degas, and Picasso, many with their original frames restored. American painters include Copley, Stuart, Allston, Homer, Sargent, and Cassatt. And then there are such 20th-century masters as O'Keeffe, and Pollock.

One room could be said to contain the museum's ``greatest hits'' of Impressionism. It has such works as Monet's ``La Japonaise''; Gauguin's Tahitian tour de force ``Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?''; and Renoir's swirling peasant dancing couple, ``Dance at Bougival.''

More recent acquisitions are contained in the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, which houses works from 1960 to the present. Andy Warhol's ``Red Disaster'' and Georg Baselitz's ``Lazarus'' reside there.

Also on view are ``Black'' by Ellsworth Kelly and ``Three Pyramids'' by Roy Lichtenstein, both lent by the artists for this occasion.

Another treat is seeing John Singer Sargent's famous painting ``The Daughters of Edward D. Boit,'' flanked by the same, tall blue-and-white Japanese vases that are in the painting.

In addition to the paintings, there are 46 sculptures, and a selection of decorative art objects: German silver, Giambologna bronzes, and other treasures.

The museum is celebrating the opening with free admission through Sunday, activities for children, and special musical performances.

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