In a city full of beautiful buildings, the Gibbes Museum of Art still manages to stand out. Built in the Beaux Arts style, the circa-1903 building presides gracefully over its stretch of Meeting Street, only blocks from the mansions and breezes of the Battery. Looking at the Gibbes’ grand columns, stained glass dome, and shady front plaza, you’d expect to find a continuation of that classical beauty when you walk in the doors.
That, however, is not exactly the case. After renovations in the 1930s and an addition in the 1970s, the Gibbes lost much of its interior character. There’s wooden parquet flooring, a bland staircase, and a series of unremarkable galleries (except for the grand gallery on the second floor, which is high-ceilinged, spacious, and retains some of the original neoclassical feel).
Now that’s all going to change. After three years of designing and planning, the Gibbes has begun a museum-wide $13.4 million renovation process (raised through a capital campaign) that will restore the building to its former Beaux-Arts glory. They’ve landed a top-notch designer, too: Jeff Daly, who spent 25 years as head of design for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After leaving the Met, he founded his own firm, Jeff Daly Museum and Design Consulting, in 2009 and has worked with museums and institutions around the country.
Daly is passionate about all his projects, and this one is no different. He first got involved with the Gibbes in 2011 when the museum loaned several paintings to an historic Charleston exhibition that Daly designed at the Winter Antiques Show in New York. “That’s where I met and fell in love with Angela [Mack, executive director of the Gibbes],” Daly says. “I have a huge amount of respect for her.”
Mack and Daly began talks about a new vision for the Gibbes, and before long, talk turned to action. Daly, who is based in upstate New York, started coming down to Charleston on a regular basis, working with the Gibbes’ staff to develop a new, comprehensive design for the museum that will give it a look and feel worthy of the South’s first art museum. “Almost immediately after my first encounter with Jeff, it was clear to me that this was the person who could implement the vision of the museum,” Mack says. “His professionalism and expertise are at the highest level of museum design and we are thrilled he is part of this project.”
The plan calls for a top-to-bottom redo of the museum’s interior — the wood floor, for example, will be torn up to reveal the building’s original tile. All the building’s lighting, including the electrical system, will be changed and updated. The windows will also be replaced, which will help the Gibbes cut down on skyrocketing energy costs. “In the second floor rotunda, those windows have never been changed in 100 years — you can imagine how inefficient those are,” says Daly.
Then there’s the dome. “Some people say it’s a Tiffany, some that it isn’t. A curator at the Met said she thought it was very likely it was a Tiffany, and one of the restorers from Chicago looked at it and said ‘Yeah, that looks like a Tiffany design,” Daly says. Tiffany or not, the dome’s gone a century without a thorough cleaning, so it’s in need of serious attention.
While these aesthetic changes are important, they’re far from the only ones. One of the most exciting aspects of the new design is that it will allow the Gibbes to display more of its extensive permanent collection, which, according to Director of Collections Administration Zinnia Willits, numbers close to 10,000 works. Willits is in the throes of packing up that collection, some of which will go into storage and some to other museums while the building is out of commission until late 2015 or early 2016.
When the renovation is complete, and the new exhibitions are sorted out, many pieces will see the light of day for the first time in years. “As we pull pieces from storage for packing, it has been exciting to see objects from our sculpture collection that do not often make it into The Charleston Story exhibition due to current space constraints,” Willits says. “While we do have several beautiful, classic marble sculptures on display, we also have many contemporary, thought-provoking pieces in storage that are largely unknown to our visitors.”
To attain that extra space, Daly is changing the entire way patrons move through the Gibbes. “The idea is to get the flow of the museum through upstairs and downstairs, bringing that third floor into play finally. Special exhibitions will be on the third floor, so they won’t have to pull apart that main gallery anymore. It will allow people to go in, go up a new staircase — we’re also having an elevator put in — and see the special exhibitions, and then work their way down through the building.”
On the second floor, guests will go through the early history of Charleston shown through portraiture, which is something the Gibbes is especially known for. “We’re showing off the strength and color of the collection. Because of the installation schedule and the tremendous demand on gallery space, most people haven’t seen how broad and comprehensive the collection is,” Daly says.
That goes for the Gibbes’ collection of miniatures, too. The 600-plus collection is one of the largest in the country, but it’s only been seen in tiny bits and pieces. “People will be amazed — it’s been in hiding,” Daly says.
The first floor of the museum will be reconfigured to open up more space, with the gift shop moving to the opposite side of the building. A new cafe and wine bar will go in on the other side, and there will also be more classrooms and two artist studios that will be occupied by regional artists. This floor will be entirely free and open to the public. All together, the renovated Gibbes should be a more welcoming place that still attracts the tourists who have always passed through its doors, but also invites in locals who’ve never set foot in the museum.
While there’s a long road ahead, Daly’s fervor for the project never flags. “I’m getting really excited for the next step, and the next step, and getting closer to the finale,” he says. “It can be a tremendously inspirational thing if you can look at it and see it, rather than just, ‘This is a really hard project — I hope I can get through it.'”