Block reopens to excited crowd

Hundreds of art lovers and campus dignitaries jammed the lobby of Northwestern’s recently renovated Block Museum of Art Friday to celebrate the museum’s reopening and to sneak a glimpse of the building’s new second floor.

The museum reopened this weekend after a yearlong renovation that nearly tripled its size and added several galleries. The $8 million project also created a multimedia classroom and a print and drawing study center.

At the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this weekend, rainy weather forced campus officials to move the celebration indoors.

Audience members packed into every inch of space, forcing a smattering of late arrivals to stand outside in the rain and peer through the building’s full-length windows.

University President Henry Bienen said the new space will help forge alliances between the museum and the campus’s art departments and that he was “ecstatic” about the renovation.

“This is really important to Northwestern,” he said. “It will allow us to make an impact well beyond what we’ve been able to do before.”

Paul Leffmann, a 93-year-old Wilmette resident who donated $4 million to the museum’s renovation, jokingly chided the university for “dragging me into this” but said he is happy with the results.

He said he got caught up in the museum’s expansion plans when searching for a place to house his deceased wife’s artwork. After meeting with museum director David Mickenberg, he had planned to show the multi-colored tapestries in the museum’s existing building but decided that it did not have enough space.

“It just didn’t seem to fit, so we thought of expanding,” Leffmann said. “We thought an extension would be prohibitive, so we began to think of rebuilding the building.”

The renovated museum’s first floor gallery now hosts a full exhibition of Theo Leffmann’s bright combinations of beads, wool and feathers. According to a sign at the exhibit, she worked to “liberate textiles from practical or decorative application.”

NU officials hosted a full schedule of activities Friday through Sunday to fete the museum’s renovation, including lectures about specific artists, a performance by drum and dance ensemble Boomshaka and a music performance, “The Block Museum Dances.”

Debbie Shore, a secretary with the campus activities office, said she visited the museum at least twice a month before the renovation. Back then, she said, the museum contained one main gallery, with not enough space to show many of its 2,000 works of art.

Now, museum officials said, the expanded museum allows them to display more work. The new second floor is twice the size of the original museum.

“There’s a whole lot more room,” Shore said, gesturing toward an exhibition of bronze artifacts that lines the staircase. “I love it. Bringing artwork to the campus is really nice.”

The museum has been closed since June 1999 for the renovation. Although the construction interrupted her regular schedule of museum visits, Shore said she looks forward to visiting the new building during her lunch hour.

Richard Thomas, co-chairman of the Block Museum Campaign Committee, said he hopes the museum’s collection and its sculpture garden will become the epicenter of the campus’s artistic life.

“This is more than just a museum,” he said. “It’s going to be an important and integral part of life on this university.”

The university founded the Block Museum 20 years ago to showcase temporary exhibitions and to facilitate research.

It soon began a permanent collection and now primarily houses sculptures and 20th century Western prints. The new second floor exhibits several drawings by metal sculptor Richard Serra.

The new building boasts open spaces, hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of Lake Michigan. At the reopening ceremony, it still smelled of fresh paint.

Keith Liesse, a security guard at the museum, said he can’t believe NU finished construction in time for the reopening ceremony.

“I’m surprised everything came together on time and as quickly as it did,” he said. “Just two weeks ago, you wouldn’t even have recognized it.”