BYU gives 'sneak preview' of museum

With the aplomb of a master sculptor, BYU unveiled its latest campus addition May 18, the almost-finished Museum of Art.

At a "sneak preview," news reporters and other invited guests toured the 100,000-square-foot facility scheduled to open officially on Oct. 18. When finished, it will preserve, safeguard and showcase the university's art collection of approximately 14,000 pieces, including Rembrandt etchings, jade from the Ming Dynasty, and paintings by C.C.A. Christensen, the 19th Century LDS artist whose works illustrated the events of the gospel's restoration.While many of the objects have been widely loaned, they have rarely been displayed on campus because of the lack of an adequate facility.

"It's been very frustrating when you think that we've had this excellent collection of some 14,000 objects and we've had to hide them away and store them away over the past 50 years," said James A. Mason, museum director and immediate past dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications. "I've often made the comparison of how a librarian might feel if we had the library and no one could check out a book."

The largest arts museum between Denver, Colo., and San Francisco, Calif., according to Dr. Mason, the museum will do more than provide a home for the university's art treasures.

"It will be a vehicle for us to show other exhibits as they become available to us," he said.

Most notable of such exhibits is the museum's opening show in October, which will occupy the entire facility. Called "The Etruscans, Legacy of a Lost Civilization," the exhibit is on loan from the Vatican Museums. BYU will be the last of four locations unveiling the artifacts, which have never before been out of the Vatican. The other locations are Memphis, Tenn.; Dallas, Texas; and Morristown, N.J.

The Etruscans were a civilization of merchant seamen who thrived for more than 500 years from approximately 750 to 250 B.C. and dominated a region of central Italy known as Etruria.

Paul L. Anderson, head of exhibition development, said the exhibit will be an event of the magnitude of the Ramses II exhibit that came to BYU in 1985. Because the university had no arts museum on that occasion, the entire Bean Life Science Museum was emptied to make way for the Ramses II show.

Although admission to the new museum will be free most of the time, there will be a charge for special exhibits such as the Etruscans, Dr. Mason said.

Located just north of the Harris Fine Arts Center, the new museum is an imposing structure, even empty as it is now. A large, octagonal area dominated by a huge skylight is surrounded by three levels plus a mezzanine.

Architectural features take full advantage of vistas - Squaw Peak to the east and Mt. Timpanogos to the south - as well as the natural light prized by artists.

Galleries range from the intimate to the expansive: 700 to 4,000 square feet. In height they range from 14 to 23 feet.

The museum boasts an integrated educational center with an electronic classroom and retrieval system and a children's hands-on activity area. Other features include a conservation lab, cataloging and record-keeping areas, photography lab, exhibition design space and staging area, library, gift shop and restaurant.

A sculpture garden with a reflecting pool will grace the outdoor area between the fine arts center and the museum. Other sculptures will be displayed in a gallery indoors.

An Asian gallery will feature a dry garden and the university's extensive collection of Chinese and Japanese art objects, including woodblock prints, Ming Dynasty jade and ivory carvings.

Still another gallery will showcase the university's Van Buren collection of historic musical instruments, including such exotic items as sackbuts, hurdy-gurdies, and Handel's viola da gamba. Dr. Mason said the instruments will be grouped as ensembles, with recorded music demonstrating how the ensembles would sound.

Costing more than $15 million, the museum was built from private donations ranging from $5 to several million dollars, Dr. Mason said. An endowment fund will provide ongoing maintenance.

He said one donor who had pledged $1 million dollars died before the donation was consummated. His children, although they had not lived with their father or had been raised by him, honored the pledge.

Another donor, he said, gave a "widow's mite" of $5,000 over a five-year period, although her annual income was only $20,000. "I was really touched by that," he said. "In fact I tried to talk her out of it. While I was trying to raise money elsewhere, I told her, `You can't afford to give that.' "

But as with many others, her commitment to society and the humanities outweighed her self-interest, Dr. Mason said.

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