When the Everson Museum of Art opened its present quarters in 1968, it was dubbed "a work of art for works of art." As the first museum design by internationally-acclaimed architect I. M. Pei, the Everson's design has been credited with launching Pei's world-famous career and putting the museum at the forefront of contemporary architecture. Today, the museum is more than just a "work of art." It has assumed a vital role in the reinvigoration of downtown Syracuse through artistic programs designed to maximize community involvement.
The Everson Museum of Art's roots extend to the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, which was founded in 1897 by George Fisk Comfort, a well known art educator who also helped establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts' inaugural exhibition was held in 1900. Within twenty years of its founding, the Syracuse museum made two character-setting decisions under the leadership of Fernando Carter, the second director of the museum. In 1911, it declared that it would seek to collect only American art (the first museum anywhere to do so), and in 1916, it purchased a small group of porcelains from Syracuse potter Adelaide Alsop Robineau, who is today considered one of America's finest ceramists and whose work is known throughout the world.
The first decision has led to a permanent collection comprised largely of American paintings, sculpture, drawings and graphics that date from Colonial times to the present day. Among the better known works in the collection are Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of George Washington, Edward Hick's The Peaceable Kingdom and Eastman Johnson's Corn Husking. Today, the museum's permanent collection also includes works by Charles Burchfield, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Michael Tracy, Nancy Spero, Carrie Mae Weems and Barbara Kruger. The Everson also established one of the first video art collections in the United States, and today holds the largest video collection in the world.
The Everson's second decision was the impetus behind the museum's long-term commitment to the ceramic arts. The first purchase of 32 Robineau porcelains was soon followed by the acquisition of 44 additional pieces of her work. In 1932, the Ceramic National exhibitions were established in her memory. This important series of exhibits not only represented the sole national platform for the exposition of ceramics during its early years of operation, it also enabled the museum to amass one of the most comprehensive holdings of American ceramic art in the nation.
Over the years the museum had several homes, among them the Onondaga Savings Bank and the Syracuse Public Library. The rapidly expanding museum outgrew each facility. In 1941, Helen Everson made a gift to the City of Syracuse to be used for the sole purpose of erecting a museum dedicated to art appreciation and education. Under the direction of Max Sullivan, ground was broken for the present Everson Museum of Art in 1965.
Where's the Front Door?
Frank Sherman AIA
Traditionally museums were houses, grand houses of princes and kings that held their collections of magnificent objects. Traditionally buildings were containers that subtly told their use and clearly told you how to use them. They had order, balance in composition, oftentimes symmetry and discernible entrances. We came to expect that a museum was a grand and imposing building that contained valuable paintings and sculpture.
When did that change? Early in the twentieth century, architects re-thought the notions of what buildings could be. Buildings started to be viewed as sculpture themselves. Architects explored new ways of building buildings and invented new forms for a modern society to live in. They changed the way we looked at buildings as radically as artists changed the way we looked at art. To some, a building had the potential to become a dynamic work of abstract art.
I.M. Pei designed the Everson Museum of Art to be a grand sculptural object, sitting in a plaza, surrounded by the forms of the modern city. He rejected the traditional notion that a museum needed to be a monumental container for art and decided it ought to be a sculptural work of art itself. He freed himself to design a building that could be experienced as sculpture.
We experience sculpture in three dimensions by moving around it. Sculpture is meant to be seen from multiple viewpoints over a period of time. I.M. Pei wants us to see his building from multiple viewpoints, to move around it, discover its forms and spaces. He wants us to discover how to enter the building and be delighted by the spaces we find.
This building breaks with tradition. It does not readily tell us how to use it, how to enter it or what to expect. This building does, in a very different way, tell us that it is about art. It tells us we should look at buildings and art from a different perspective. It asks us to explore and question what we think art, or sculpture, or spaces, or buildings should be. It rewards us with beautiful art, exciting spaces and a building that is dynamic, sculptural and beautifully crafted. What begins as a search for the front door becomes a journey to experience art and architecture from a new point of view.