A large museum makes still more room. Art Institute of Chicago ups gallery space by one-third

THE starchy couple in Grant Wood's ``American Gothic'' don't look as if they expected to be in $23 million lodgings, with Edward Hopper's jaded ``Nighthawks'' as roommates. But that's where both these paintings have ended up, amid the cultural treasure of the Art Institute of Chicago's new addition, which opens to the public Saturday. Situated around a skylit neoclassical sculpture court, where Lincoln broods near a young Sophocles, the new wing increases the museum's gallery space by nearly one-third.

Its opening is a source of pride to Chicagoans, whose industrial riches have been converted into cultural capital at this institution for more than a century and who help it claim the nation's largest regional museum membership.

``We wanted a building that would reinforce the existing identity of the Art Institute,'' says director James N. Wood. ``Also, I think it really demonstrates the range and breadth of the collection.''

The 66,460 square feet of gallery space in the new wing is larger than that of the Guggenheim or Whitney Museums, and nearly as large as that of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington.

Local architecture critics use words like ``boring'' to describe its exterior design. They also regard as ``subdued'' its post-modernist revival style by architect Thomas Beeby, dean of Yale University's architecture school. But the same critics also credit these elements with complementing and unifying the museum's sprawling complex.

While known for its landmark bronze lions and Beaux Arts Michigan Avenue fa,cade, the museum stretches far into Grant Park through additions of varying styles, and is even bisected by a railroad line. The new south wing, the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Building, provides a porchlike loggia where visitors can watch the trains that run below the museum. That somehow seems appropriate for a broad-shouldered Chicago institution that, while world-famous for its Impressionist paintings, also houses the trading room of the Chicago Stock Exchange designed by Louis Sullivan's firm.

Ironically, Sullivan himself blamed the classical Beaux Arts style, expressed in the main 1893 Art Institute building and echoed in the new addition, for the decline of indigenous public architecture here.

But the new building helps the Art Institute cope with a problem other museums would love to have: a top-notch collection gathered across more than a century - some 300,000 pieces in all kinds of media - with still only a fraction of the whole ever on display at one time. Mr. Wood says, ``We're not going to have any trouble filling the building.''

Besides a special exhibit gallery, to be inaugurated by the touring Paul Gauguin exhibit that opens here Saturday, the new building also houses a collection of European decorative arts from the 17th century to the present, American arts from colonial times to 1900, and American painting and sculpture from the 1940s through the '60s.

The latter includes works such as Willem de Kooning's ``Excavation'' and Jackson Pollock's ``The Key,'' and works by Ivan Albright.

Albright, along with Grant Wood, Georgia O'Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, and other famous artists, studied at the School of the Art Institute.

With completion of the new wing and some further renovations, the space for 20th-century art will double, Wood says.

Earlier American art on display in the new wing includes works such as Mary Cassatt's ``The Bath'' and Winslow Homer's ``The Herring Net.''

The new building also gives curators more space for displays that combine different arts of each period. The European decorative arts galleries, for example, feature furniture, ceramics, and other objects mixed with textiles and paintings.

``We still have 80 percent of our items in storage, of a total of 15,000 to 18,000 pieces,'' says Ian Wardropper, associate curator of European decorative arts and sculpture. ``One of the pleasures of doing this installation was being able to go and find any kind of example, practically, to fit some period, medium, or style.''

``The thing I've noticed,'' says Neal Benezra, curator of the department of 20th-century painting and sculpture, ``is how often I've heard people say to me how much civic pride they feel in the institution. I can't tell you how many artists I meet who say they remember seeing their first painting at the Art Institute as a child.''

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