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Museum of Fine Arts renovates and re-imagines

Bill DeYoung

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Jade masks from the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg collection. From left Olmec, Mexico; Aztec, Mexico, Mayan, Guatemala. All photos in this story by Bill DeYoung.

The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg has been enlarged, expanded and enhanced plenty of times in its 55-year history. The Hazel Hough Wing, on the north side, was added in 2008 and has become the go-to gallery space for the museum’s temporary visiting expositions and more (the café and gift shop are there, too).

After a lengthy Covid sleep, the Hough Wing re-opened to the public in September.

Starting Tuesday, art aficionados can re-enter the original, 12,000-square-foot exhibition galleries, which have been completely re-imagined and renovated for the first time since 1965. Although work has been done over the decades, the layout of those dozen or so rooms hadn’t much changed since museum founder Margaret Acheson Stuart was in charge back in the day.

Executive director Kristen Shepherd put a total overhaul on her list of things to do virtually from the moment she arrived in 2014.

And 2020 was always going to be the year. “This was actually a long-planned renovation and re-installation,” Shepherd said during a Monday-morning tour of the “new” facility. “We had originally planned for the de-installation and construction to begin in late spring, and it was meant to go basically through the holidays.”

The idea was to do it in phases – work on certain galleries while the others remained open, then turn the tables and close one, open the other.

“When we closed for Covid, we didn’t know how long we’d be closed. But once it was clear that Covid was going to be with us for a while, I said ‘Go, go, go!’ We were able to accelerate the project, and we finished about two months early.

“I think it’s one of the few positive things to come out of Covid.”

New to the museum: Monument with a Reclining couple and Erotes, c. A.D. 175–200, 3,400 pounds cut from a single block of marble. On loan from a private collection. This is known as a “kline monument.” Kline is the Greek word for couch or bed. Such funerary monuments are known throughout the Roman Empire, but the Greek inscription suggests that it was made in the eastern Empire, most likely Syria.

The cosmetic changes are immediately obvious – there’s a new wood floor throughout, fresh paint on the walls (in new, light-friendly shades), new track lighting and new plexi display cases.

The original north windows, closed off since 2008, now allow natural light into several galleries.

All of the art was removed for the work-in-progress, and re-hung or set when the time came.

Although much of the work will be familiar to museum visitors, many pieces were taken out of collection storage, and have never before been on display.

That’s because the galleries have been re-configured. They are now chronological – Ancient Art leads to Asian Art, which gives way to Greek, Roman and early European art. There are galleries devoted to African and Meso-American art. American art, up to 21st century work, comes last.

Previously, the first gallery – as you entered the space – contained works from Southeast Asia. In the following room, visitors were presented with contemporary art.

It was, to put it mildly, haphazardly arranged.

“I think the way we’re presenting the collection now is a really coherent, thoughtful narrative about the history of art,” Shepherd enthused. “There’s a renewed sense of discovery. And it is organized very differently now that it was before.”

MFA St. Petersburg website

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