The excitement is palpable these days at the Saint Louis Art Museum. With each scrape of a shovel, every drag of a backhoe and every rattle of a jackhammer, the museum gets closer to completing its ambitious $130.5 million, David Chipperfield-designed expansion. The new wing will increase galleries and public space by 30 percent and more than double its current parking capacity. “This is the most significant construction undertaken at the museum since the original 1904 Cass Gilbert building was built,” says museum director Brent Benjamin. He anticipates a mid-2012 completion date on construction, with a public opening later that year or in early 2013.
Work on the expansion officially got underway with a groundbreaking ceremony in January. Despite a one-year delay at the onset, Benjamin says everything is back on track. “Given the new economic reality that we live in, it turned out to be a prudent decision to wait and recalibrate the whole thing, giving us a stronger project as a result,” he says. “It also meant an extra year of fundraising and financial planning. Another plus is we’re putting 100 construction guys to work over the course of three years. And when construction is complete, we’ll be adding 25 permanent posts at the museum.”
Excavation work has begun to the east of the original building. “The addition of a three-level underground parking facility requires digging up a 40-foot pit,” Benjamin explains. “So there’s plenty of activity and workers in hard hats milling about.” Despite the work, he says it’s important to note that the museum is operating on a regular schedule. “Our permanent collection galleries are open and we continue to offer exhibitions and programs,” Benjamin says. “There is also plenty of parking available on either side of the statue of St. Louis, as well as along Fine Arts Drive.” He notes that while some galleries and amenities have been relocated to accommodate construction, visitors still have access to the museum’s most popular collections. “The mummies, ‘Pre-Colum bian’ and ‘European Paintings Up to 1800’ collections have been moved, and a temporary cafe and museum shop have been installed on the main level,” he explains, adding that maps are available to help visitors find their way.
The start of construction also signaled the beginning of the public phase of the museum’s campaign for the expansion. “The leadership phase took place during the first years of the campaign, during which we raised more than $135 million of the $145 million goal,” Benjamin says. “That includes six gifts of $10 million or more, with contributions from 100 percent of the museum’s board of commissioners and more than 80 percent of the trustees.” Now, he says the museum is counting on the St. Louis community for support to reach its target. “We’ve been able to build this base of incredible generosity and leadership, and it’s time to extend the challenge to the community,” Benjamin says. “This is really our generation’s biggest contribution to this great St. Louis institution.”