HANOVER, N.H. — In a light-filled gallery overlooking the snowy green one recent afternoon, John Stomberg, the director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, let loose an audible gasp. “Wow — they’ve taken the construction fence down,” he said, eyes wide. “Are you ever here for a great moment!”
For a museum director not 10 paces from an array of Picassos — and 10 more from Ruscha, Kusama, Rothko, Dubuffet, Léger, and Kelly, to name just a few — to be so utterly wowed by the removal of temporary fencing tells you something, and something big. On Jan. 26, the Hood reopened its doors after a full-blown $50 million architectural redux had kept it closed for nearly three years — most of Stomberg’s entire directorial tenure. As he walked its broad, light-filled galleries — refitted, opened-up, and expanded — his enthusiasm bordered on a palpable giddiness.
The new Hood expands the gallery space of the old Hood by more than 16,000 square feet, and gives it 16 galleries where there had been 10. But in its broad-minded gestures of openness and inclusion, the reimagined Hood feels expansive in ways that its footprint doesn’t quite register.
Inside the front door you’ll find the old Hood’s courtyard, now a light-filled atrium with tables and chairs, open to midnight for late-night student cram sessions. Into the museum proper, the real change: In its first gallery, a huge three-panel painting by the Nigerian artist Obiora Udechukwu dominates, with artists like Glenn Ligon and May Stevens in supporting roles. “Hopefully, everyone comes in and says ‘Who?’ ” Stomberg said of the Udechukwu piece. “Because that’s exactly the point. We could have put Ellsworth Kelly here, something everyone would recognize without even thinking. But this is designed to signal right away that we’re going to be doing things a little differently.”
Even the building itself says as much. Its new facade, once a heavy, fluted collonade wedged in by a brick wall that blocked foot traffic north to south, is light and airy, with a big glass box flooding the upper galleries with natural light. A footpath slips by the main entrance, linking the campus and the town beyond, making the museum’s entry plaza a way station between the two. Before, there was a wall.
“We used to have something like a blockade here,” Stomberg said, noting that the Hood’s facade ended when it butted up to the performing arts center on one side and Wilson Hall on the other. “Now, those two buildings are free.”
Architecturally, both gestures say something the old building seemed staunchly to deny: that the museum is open to any and all. Where Stomberg sees liberation, though, others see desecration. The original Hood, built in 1985 by the architect Charles Moore, was a postmodern treasure for the architect’s fans, one of his very best works; criticism for its makeover, by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, has been sharp. “The whole episode has been the architectural equivalent of throwing Charles Moore . . . under the bus,” Kevin Keim, director of the Charles Moore Foundation in Austin, Texas, told the Globe last year, as the building’s exterior began to take final form. E.J. Johnson, an art history professor at Williams College and the author of a book on Moore’s work, told The New York Times that the new design was “an enormous white cake box on top of Moore’s building” when the project was announced in 2016.
And despite the Hood’s claims to the contrary — Stomberg takes some pains to point out Moore’s internal grand staircase, left intact — there’s not much, at least outwardly, of Moore’s original design that remains, with its sloping roofs (under which the college had to build scaffolds each winter, to deflect sliding snow) and neoclassical facade removed entirely.
But if you think of a building as a metaphor — and in almost all good architecture, it is — what Moore built then embodied the antithesis of what the Hood wants to be now. “The frustrating part [about the old building] was that it was designed to be a museum of dead ends,” said Juliette Bianco, the Hood’s deputy director. “No matter where you went, you had to backtrack. You felt very contained. Now we’ve opened things up. You can really create your own path.”
In that simple-seeming architectural gesture resides perhaps the most elemental shift in the museum world’s thinking over the years. Containment, of course, was the museum world’s stock in trade, its authority presiding above all. Institutions like the Hood built collections and displays to tell you how to think about what was important — right down to where to go and how to get there — and by exclusion, what was not.
In a relatively short span — a decade, give or take — ceding authority has become the mantra of the new-era museum, and the Hood’s new home reads like a laboratory of its best possibilities. It is, of course, more than the building’s job to do such things, and back in the entry gallery, Stomberg paused in a small hexagonal space that served as a passageway from new to old. “We’re standing in the divide,” he said, a little dramatically. But the notion of a frontier is nonetheless apt.
The Hood has amassed some 65,000 objects over almost 300 years, and not all of them by virtuous means. “There’s no pulling apart colonialism and the birth of museums, and we’re trying to be truthful about that here,” he said, standing in a gallery of African masks. “Basically, everything was pilfered. It’s whether it was pilfered quasi-legally or not.”
It’s an extraordinary statement, particularly within days of the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, defending the museum’s refusal to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece (the British noble, Lord Elgin, who in 1800 also pilfered — what else to call it? — the sculptures from the Parthenon was, in Fischer’s view, committing “a creative act” worthy of the honor of the museum keeping them for its own).
Indeed, many museums were built by dubious means. The ruling colonial ethic that informed the founding of most institutions was designed to justify the pilfering of any element of the faraway exotic — conquered, typically, or about to be — that suited its aesthetic whims. (Decades on, they would defend the acquisitions in the name of preservation of scholarship, as though noble ends justified ugly means.)
Stomberg’s statement, though, wasn’t so much indiscreet as it was a signal of intent, and it made me think the Hood’s money is where its mouth is. And up that Moore-holdover staircase to the second level is where things really get interesting. Up top, a grand, vaulted space hosts a shimmering tapestry of aluminum castoffs by El Anatsui — one for the checklists, sure, given the Ghanian artist’s global stature of late. But like the entry gallery, his work rubs up against the unexpected: “Attitudes Towards Globalization,” a big, bold painting by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, a Congolese artist not yet 30, or a huge installation by the Belgian/Algerian artist Eric van Hove, in which each piece of an industrial engine has been re-created by hand by artisans in Morocco in wood, copper, and camel bone.
These were new to me, and that was the point. “A couple of things happen right away: This isn’t going to be as easy as it sometimes is, the same thing over and over,” Stomberg said. “Of course we have a Mark Rothko,” he said, gesturing to a side gallery of postwar Modernism, where Rothko shared space with Ellsworth Kelly, Yayoi Kusama, and Ed Ruscha. “We just put it over there.”
The Hood’s reopening display is a clear statement of intent, of old institutional thinking turned inside out. Those things typically kept off to the sides have taken center stage, while reliable narratives have shifted to the margins. One such statement speaks louder than others: The museum’s European collection, once the core of its offering, now occupies its own small, purpose-built gallery off to the side.
“I’ve been yelled at by a professor of European art,” Stomberg said. “But if you were to chart the entire world history of art, 350 years of one half of a continent being dominant doesn’t really make much sense. I think that’s a fair representation.”
Fair again that, in one of the museum’s few unavoidable paths, you have to pass through a collection of contemporary Native American art to reach the Hood’s traditional American collection. A subtle gesture, maybe, but one that rings with intent. You couldn’t see old favorites like Maxfield Parrish or John Singleton Copley before first reckoning with Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson’s towering ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHEN DO YOU WANT IT?,” an imposing totem with a skeleton of rough wood, swathed in embroidery and beadwork. Right at the door, “Dartmouth Portrait #17” by American/Luiseno artist Fritz Scholder keeps watch. A Native American man in traditional dress painted on a backdrop of the college’s signature hunter green, it’s an apt sentinel, inflecting all that comes next.
You can argue, and some have, that at an elite college like Dartmouth — Ivy League, well-funded, not beholden to membership and ticket sales, which are lifeblood for major museums in big cities — the Hood has the privilege to indulge in its quietly subversive agenda, off at a safe distance. Maybe so, but does that invalidate its intentions? I don’t think so. For a museum that could do almost anything, the Hood has chosen, with unmistakable purpose, to change its narrative. It’s drawn a blueprint for what a museum should be, and do, in a moment when battle lines are being ever more stridently drawn. It has chosen a side. And I’m on it.
Hood Museum of Art
At Dartmouth College, 6 East Wheelock St., Hanover, N.H. 603-646-2808, hoodmuseum.dartmouth.eduMurray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte