Oberlin Blogs

Work in progress is the best show in town

September 30, 2011

Prof. Erik Inglis ’89

One of my favorite parts of an orchestra concert is the time between finding your seat and the conductor's entrance. You're seated, talking with your friends and looking over the program, the musicians are on the stage talking to their friends, looking over their music, and playing bits and pieces, or tuning. There's a shared sense of preparation and anticipation.

This moment, the moment before the event begins, happens in every field--from music to surgery, from theater to court to teaching. And it happens in museums. In most museums, though, this pleasurable moment-just-before (German must have a good word for it) is invisible to the public. Unlike the concert hall, and more like the theater, most preparations in a museum take place behind the curtain--so that we don't encounter the work until it's finished and the curtain goes up or the gallery opens.

The Ellen Johnson wing of the Allen--EJ for short--is an exception to this rule. Thanks to Robert Venturi's design, there are three windows into the space that are accessible to pedestrians: one at ground level in front, just south of the original building; one at back, next to the ironic ionic capital; and one in the Art Library, on the second floor of the Venturi Wing, looking down into the gallery. The view from the Art Library is particularly notable, because it maintained the visual access between library and collection that was part of the museum's original design, when students had study carrels upstairs, in what is now the Ripin Print Gallery. (Since the Art Library stays open later than the museum, this window also lets you see the gallery when it's sleeping, a very rare privilege).

The presence of these windows means that when EJ is closed to prepare for a new installation, you can catch glimpses of the work in progress and feel that preparatory anticipation we find in the concert hall. Those windows had been closed for a long time, as EJ was the first of the museum's galleries to close for renovation, and will be the last to reopen. But I walked by the column yesterday and the shutters were gone and the view was clear. You can see that work continues, but like an orchestra just before it begins playing, you can also tell that things are very close to done. There were the Lewitt and the Serra. There was the Joan Mitchell, the Elizabeth Murray, the Tim Hawkinson. My step quickened and I ran up to the art library to get the view from above--it was great, too. Seeing the preparation makes it clear that the even better view from inside will be available soon.

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