Museums put storage on display

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Henry R. Luce Center packs in 7,129 objects. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Behind an art museum's gleaming galleries lies the off-limits and uninviting space that can hold as much as 95% of its collection: storage.

These spaces are often packed with hundreds or even thousands of paintings, decorative art objects and other artifacts that can languish, unappreciated and untouched by curators, for years.

But as a way to bring art out from its underbelly and display more of a museum's possessions, several institutions are embracing "visible storage" in public areas, exhibiting the art without the expense of a spacious, beautifully installed and curated show.

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And two new, but quite different, examples are planned for museums in Los Angeles.

At the L.A. County Museum of Art, where only 2.3% of the 119,000-piece collection is currently on view, director Michael Govan has been working with architect Peter Zumthor on new $650-million building plans that would, among other things, bring more artwork out of storage.

Meanwhile, at the Broad under construction downtown, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro are essentially putting the storage room itself — and maybe the idea of storage as well — on display. The Broad is expected to open to the public by the end of 2014.

"There is this public assumption that museums are hoarding objects in dark rooms, and by the way that isn't totally wrong," said Govan. "What we're saying is that those objects are worthy for viewing and studying if not always for exhibitions. So you're not contemplating a masterpiece, but maybe you'll find value in comparing and contrasting different examples of vases."

Govan says Zumthor's proposed design — a building that features an expansive single-floor exhibition space supported 30 feet off the ground by glass stems called "cores" — would allow for twice as many artworks to be on display as the current buildings do.

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The idea, Govan said, is that the cores would contain "denser," "semi-permanent" installations of art (along with stairs, elevators and study rooms) visible from the museum grounds. He has compared these spaces to storefronts on Rodeo Drive, giving visitors a taste of what's inside, even at night.

"For us this is about our institutional history," said Joanne Heyler, the director and chief curator of the Broad museum, the future home to Eli and Edythe Broad's 2,000-work collection. "How in a building can we make it clear to visitors that storage and conservation are a core part of the museum's function? And how do we make that more transparent?"

While the main skylight-studded exhibition space will be located on the third floor, the second floor features private-access storage rooms for paintings and sculptures. But leaving the third floor by stairs promises a wow moment, with floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows offering two glimpses into the paintings storage area.

One will be a sweeping view of the storage racks (picture large steel sheets that run along suspended tracks). Another window is positioned between the aisles, so several paintings will be visible.

And, yes, Heyler is already thinking about what to display most prominently in storage, noting for example that a 20-foot Anselm Kiefer painting would be too large to be seen in full in that space.

"That's the funny thing," she said. "You end up curating your storage."

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Visitors can already experience something similar at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. The museum, which opened two years ago, teases visitors with views into glass-walled storage rooms on the ground floor, while the main exhibition galleries are above.

Dean Sobel, the director of the Clyfford Still Museum, said the thinking was to help demonstrate the depth and breadth of the artist's life's work — 95% of which, he says, belongs to the museum.

"Once we decided that all of the storage would be on site, we made the decision not just to relegate it to a basement but to put it on the ground floor as part of the visitor experience. We wanted to put activity normally hidden from the viewer on display," he said, noting that the conservation area is also visible through glass walls.