A New Wing, a New Direction (Cleveland, Ohio)

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This city 's Museum of Art has accomplished Phase I of an eight-year, $350 million renovation and expansion that—if completed as planned in 2013—will be the largest cultural project in Ohio's history. The first phase includes an impressive renovation of both the original 1916 beaux-arts building and Marcel Breuer's modernist 1971 addition. It culminated in June with the opening of architect Rafael Viñoly's first of two proposed gallery wings...

...Cleveland's museum is anything but bush league. A look at the beautifully restored and hung collections in the older buildings renovated under Mr. Viñoly's master plan as well as the 25,000 square feet of new space offers evidence that much of what Cleveland owns is world class. Moreover, the unique ­vision of Sherman Lee, the ­museum's seminal director for a quarter century, remains alive, even if what's in the new East Wing galleries shows that his vision has been somewhat ­enlarged and ­updated.

Lee came to the museum in 1952 as curator of Oriental art, and was director from 1958 to 1982. Since its 1916 founding, the museum has never charged admission, but Lee was also ­relieved of much of the burden of raising acquisition money thanks to a local philanthropist, Leonard C. Hanna Jr., who left the museum $33 million for ­acquisitions shortly before Lee took over, making it—during Lee's golden era—one of the wealthiest museums in the country. This let him amass a superb Asian collection and ­acquire dozens of major paintings, including those of ­Velázquez, El Greco and Goya, as well as masterpieces such as Frederic Edwin Church's "Twilight in the Wilderness" (1860), Jacques-Louis David's "Cupid and Psyche" (1817) and Nicolas Poussin's "The Holy Family on the Steps" (1648). Fifty of the Asian works he acquired are the focus of "Streams and Mountains Without End," on view through Aug. 23.

Lee disdained the museum world's fashionable enthusiasms. Thus he did not buy a Jackson Pollock until 1980 and passed on early opportunities to acquire works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns (all now represented in the new galleries). He refused to recognize photography as a worthy component of a major art museum, requiring his successors to play catch-up. He preferred tasteful, high-minded, even scholarly art shows, resisting blockbuster exhibitions, ­recorded gallery tours and gift shops—all of which the current leadership embraces, as do virtually all of their peers. These qualities led the art critic John Canaday to call Lee's Cleveland "the only really aristocratic art museum in the country."

Although lack of adequate space for Lee's deep Asian collection was a principal motivation for the current building project, the bulk of that collection will be in storage until the Viñoly expansion is completed in 2013. Instead, the new East Wing houses works that were not among Lee's priorities, from the mid-19th century to the present, including contemporary art and photography. For the most part, the modern art collection is shallow. But it contains some dazzling pieces: "Two Women," a 1908 bronze by Henri Matisse, stands near an arresting, highly polished brass abstraction, "Male Torso," by Constantin Brancusi (1917) and the brooding "Head of Christ" painted by Georges Rouault (1937).

The Rodin holdings are anything but shallow and highlighted at one end of the new wing, in a glass-box gallery overlooking the park-like campus. A dozen of the museum's more than 40 Rodins fill this unconventionally bright and exposed space, including an artist's casting of his groundbreaking "The Age of Bronze" (1876).

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