Madison’s Chazen art museum doubles size

Live anywhere long enough, and you’re likely to take good things for granted. That’s the way it is for me in Madison, where always-there treasures since 1970 have included a free-admission art museum on the University of Wisconsin campus.

I know it as a lovely place to hear classical music on Sunday afternoons, plus an inviting refuge from rain, urban chatter and the stresses of life. Whatever I encounter – Japanese woodblock prints, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, lifelike nude sculptures, art medals from Germany – often seems like a mesmerizing surprise.

That’s partly because holdings are routinely rotated from storage, but now there is room to show off more and bigger pieces of art. Much more. Much bigger.

This month the Chazen Museum of Art more than doubles its exhibition space because of a $43 million addition that seems both practical and visually engaging. The doors open with no debt, thanks to a $25 million contribution from UW alums Simona and Jerome Chazen, East Coast natives who met while college students, and the generosity of more than 140 other donors.

The former Elvehjem Art Center opened 41 years ago with 1,600 works of art, and now the museum’s collection exceeds 20,000. Art donors tend to be UW alumni with wide-ranging interests, ancient (as in B.C.) bronze Roman coins and Egyptian sculptures to art made in this decade. The latter sometimes involves unusual materials (think insect parts) or methods (like Murrini – layered, fused, colored – glass).

Now large-scale temporary exhibitions, such as Irish-born Sean Scully’s watercolors and oils, also will make their way to Madison. Consider “Liliane,” an abstract tribute to his wife: In the work are eight components, each about 7 feet high and 7 feet tall; they fill a gallery wall.

Large, inviting and comfortable spaces – “aesthetically pleasing and of their time” – are what Russell Panczenko, museum director, says the enlarged Chazen provides. “It’s not an iconic building design, like the Milwaukee Art Museum, but that wasn’t our intention,” he says.

Although he says “functionality” was the primary concern, design harmoniously merges the original and new structures, which are connected by a bridge that doubles as a gallery.

On the rooftop are seven copper-clad light monitors for the new display spaces. The monitors allow more natural light than is typical for a museum but also diffuse light to protect artwork.

“You’ll not see white-box galleries – the sterile, almost laboratory environment,” the museum director says. “That type of setting doesn’t make us comfortable, so what we have are soft and inviting new galleries” whose color and lighting “do not compete with the art.”

In the expansion is a two-story entrance with glass walls, and the galleries above it include two glass-box spaces.

Besides doubling exhibit space, the addition of 86,000 square feet includes an auditorium for public lectures and film screenings, a museum store, classroom and expanded storage space.

The Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., Madison, is closed on Mondays and admission remains free. For more: www.chazen.wisc.edu, 608-263-2246.

The Sean Scully exhibit remains in place until Jan. 15, 2012, as does “The Leslie and Johanna Garfield Collection: A Passion for Prints.” Paintings from the Simona and Jerome Chazen collection will be shown until March 11, and “The Hanga Traditions: Twentieth Century Japanese Woodcuts” opens Nov. 5.

Coming in early April 2012: a major studio glass exhibition, which in part showcases the work of Harvey Littleton, a retired UW professor who introduced the first hot glass art program at an American university. His students included glass sculpture superstar Dale Chihuly.

Current exhibits in Milwaukee include “Building a Masterpiece: Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum,” which incorporates photos, models and watercolors to explain the 10-year-old museum expansion’s design and history. The show remains in place until the end of 2011.

The museum’s newest acquisition is “Alice Hooper,” a 1793 oil painting by John Singleton Copley. Brady Roberts, chief museum curator, predicts it will become “one of the museum’s icons of American art.”

The acquisition coincides with a reinstallation of the American Collections Galleries. “We are re-imagining the scope of American art at the museum,” the curator says, in preparation for the museum’s 125th anniversary in 2013.

For more about the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr., on the city’s lakefront: www.mam.org, 414-224-3200.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.