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July 15, 2010

On October 10, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento—the art museum of my boyhood, I should note—will repoen both it's 1871-built gallery space, the old Crocker mansion, and a new expansion by Gwathmey Seigel and Associates Architects. It's a long overdue expansion and renovation for the Crocker, and I for one am quite excited to see it. I had the good fortune to have lunch today with the museum's director Lial A. Jones at Wexler's in San Francisco. We talked about what the museum means to Sacramento (where I was brought up), how they chose Gwathmey Seigel, and what a white building in the state capital means.

This rendering shows Gwathmey Seigel's plans for the expansion of the museum.
This rendering shows Gwathmey Seigel's plans for the expansion of the museum.
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Lial A. Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum.
Lial A. Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum.
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This photo shows the original museum, one of the first purpose-built art museums in California, next to the addition. Photo by Brian Suhr.
This photo shows the original museum, one of the first purpose-built art museums in California, next to the addition. Photo by Brian Suhr.
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A shot of one of the new galleries in the Crocker Art Museum expansion. Photo by Brian Suhr.
A shot of one of the new galleries in the Crocker Art Museum expansion. Photo by Brian Suhr.
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This rendering shows Gwathmey Seigel's plans for the expansion of the museum.
This rendering shows Gwathmey Seigel's plans for the expansion of the museum.

Why is the Crocker Art Museum expanding now?
When I came to the museum ten years ago it was still struggling with the limitations of its physical plant. Although the 1871 gallery is a wonderful, purpose-built art museum, all these years later there was no loading dock. The staff had been "temporarily" located in trailers onsite for 26 years. It was one thing after another that we didn't have.
How did you arrive at selecting Gwathmey Siegel Architects?
So we had this need to expand, but we had to do it in a way that made sense. We started with a master plan. In October, 2000 we sent out a request for qualifications to every major museum-building architecture firm in the world. We must have sent out 80 requests, and I'd say we got about 40 back. And to complicate things even more, we had a 37-member selection committee to make an initial selection. They we narrowed it down to eight firms and then finally to three.

Lial A. Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum.
Lial A. Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum.
Who else made the cut?
We had the IM Pei Partnership, Venturi Scott Brown, and Gwathmey Seigel.
The old guard!
Yes. Very much the old guard. It was a pretty eclectic group when you had the eight. We also had Herzog and De Meuron, Brad Cloepfil, and HOK. But when we had it down to just three IM Pei's office and Venturi Scott Brown came in and said, Here's the design that we want to do for the Crocker. Then Charles Gwathmey came in in his wonderful way and said, Here are the problems we think the Crocker has and here's how we've solved them in the past. We don't know what the design will totally be, but we think that if we all work together we can figure it out. The decision was unanimous.
Why didn't you go after a local architect? Why the East Coast heavy hitters?
There weren't any Sacramento architects who had ever done a museum. Given the huge number of deficiencies, I don't know what else you'd call them, the Crocker had we wanted a museum architect. It's a different building form, the museum, and they say that museums and hospitals are the most difficult buildings to make. This expansion is an iconic piece of by a major modern architect, and for Sacramento it will be the piece of modern architecture. It's a symbol for Sacramentans who already know that this is a good place. Sacramento has something of an inferiority complex and our museum will be the easiest thing to point to to say, See, we have something going here.
The expansion is tripling the size of the space that will house the permanent collection and quadrupling the size of the space where you'll show temporary installations? Does this make the Crocker more attractive to traveling shows?
The Crocker is getting a sexy new building that is in California, and on top of that in the capital of California, so yes this is a very attractive location for curators. You have to remember that Judge Crocker in 1871 built a piece of high-style contemporary architecture. We're just doing the same thing some 140 years later.
This photo shows the original museum, one of the first purpose-built art museums in California, next to the addition. Photo by Brian Suhr.
This photo shows the original museum, one of the first purpose-built art museums in California, next to the addition. Photo by Brian Suhr.

It makes a difference to donors too, right?
Right. Part of the expansion is to elevate the reputation of the Crocker. And architecture certainly has a role to play in that. But I should note that the building facade is not the primary object. The building is a tool which allows us to do what we do, but it is not the primary work of the museum.
What then about Gwathmey Siegel's design attracted you beyond how they work and their legacy?
It works so well with what we've got already: the 1871 gallery, the Crocker mansion, and the Edward Larabee Barnes connector between the two. The scale is the same, there are new, great spaces that can have several uses, I love the way Gwathmey Seigel use light, the uniformity of the window lines. Every datapoint in the new building is based on a datapoint in the gallery building, down to how the new track lights mimic the placement of the old gas lamps.
A shot of one of the new galleries in the Crocker Art Museum expansion. Photo by Brian Suhr.
A shot of one of the new galleries in the Crocker Art Museum expansion. Photo by Brian Suhr.

I can understand being drawn to the sympathy between the buildings. How then does it stand out?
I remember driving around Sacramento with Charles Gwathmey before he died and he remarked that there really aren't too many white buildings in town except for the Capitol. The white is a way to subliminally suggest that this is an important building. And the round form of the entry to the new building really reminds me of a railroad lantern, a beacon inviting people in.

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