Nearly 10 years in the making, the “New” Norton Museum of Art makes its debut
It’s a bit complicated to get from one spot to the other right now,” said John Backman, project manager for the New Norton. It was October 2018, and Backman, in a helmet and reflective jacket, led me gingerly through a site tour at the Norton Museum of Art, which was still abuzz with the sights and sounds of construction. The Norton had been fully closed to the public since mid-July for the final phase of its four-year renovation, arguably the Palm Beaches’ biggest cultural news in years. Some rooms in the museum were still off limits, their entrances quarantined with ominous red tape screaming “DANGER.”
We were rats in a maze as we navigated the noisy, bustling site, which often meant going around the building rather than through it, or following Backman’s shortcuts through the kitchen or the staff entrance. I saw the future gift shop space, the future theatre space and the future restaurant, all of them in flux and teeming with potential.
But it wasn’t until we entered the Great Hall, the museum’s vast central lobby, with its 43-foot-high vaulted ceiling with an oculus peering down like an eye in the sky, that its visionary new design came to life. Even unfurnished and depopulated, this soaring lobby, with its dramatic 300-square foot window overlooking the façade, cut a striking contrast from the museum’s more modest former entrance.
Backman has managed this reconstruction since 2015, and he has overseen 90 percent of its budget, which has ballooned from its initial $40 million estimate to $100 million. For such a significant responsibility on his shoulders, Backman projects a Zenlike demeanor.
But when asked, he admitted that “lots of things keep me up at night. A lot has to do with tradesmens’ abilities or inabilities to deliver on time. That’s a huge thing. Right now we’re on schedule. There is very little room for error left.”
How It Began
When the Norton reopens on Feb. 9, it will be the culmination of a vision that began even before the hiring of executive director Hope Alswang in 2010.
“When I was interviewed for the job in 2009, one of the things they said to me is, ‘We have an adequate facility, but clearly we need to do more,’” Alswang recalls. “We need to make this a more dynamic and energetic museum. … Then they started using these words like ‘it’s not friendly enough, and not welcoming enough, and it seems dark.’ That’s how the process began. We brought on Foster + Partners to look at doing a master plan.”
Foster, known largely for its modernist glass-and-steel edifices, has designed or redesigned some of the most iconic structures in the world for the past 50 years, from London’s Trafalgar Square, Millennium Bridge and Wembley Stadium to Berlin’s Reichstag building and New York City’s Hearst Tower. West Palm Beach is the smallest of fry compared to the major metropolises in which Foster usually works, but the firm’s enthusiasm for the project was high from the outset.
“When I started coming to Palm Beach, which was almost eight years ago now, I was amazed that the people you meet—people who would struggle to find an hour for you in New York—would have the whole evening for you in Palm Beach,” says Foster + Partner’s Michael Wurzel, the project’s partner in charge. “It’s a different pace, it’s a different life, a different attitude. And we found it quite inspirational and quite exciting.”
With a few specific areas of improvement in mind—its problematic former entrance, which faced away from South Dixie Highway, and the museum’s connection to the larger community, which its board thought could be strengthened—Foster + Partners designed a master plan which would ultimately include a brand-new education facility and a new 42,000-square-foot West Wing, which would add 12,000 square feet of exhibition space. This sweeping plan promised nothing short of complete Norton reboot, hence the project’s name: The New Norton.
Happily, the New Norton will integrate the iconic 80-year-old banyan tree, which long signaled the arrival of the Norton to motorists, into its new design, and for the first time, a massive artwork—Pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s 1999 sculpture “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X”—will be exhibited outside the Norton’s main entrance, inside the reflecting pool.
“It is important that we have an Oldenburg sculpture right at the entrance, so that there is art immediately with the tree,” Wurzel says. “And the museum can say, ‘We are an important cultural institution in Florida.’”
Inside, the former gift shop, café and auditorium spaces have been demolished in favor of splashier replacements, like a state-of-the-art 210-seat auditorium and a larger restaurant with full kitchen and outdoor dining. The sculpture garden has expanded into a series of segmented “pocket gardens,” and the new education center nearly doubles the museum’s education space. There will be more live entertainment than ever before, including dance performances, poetry, concerts and a new film series.
What It Means
Despite cranes in the air, the Norton Museum remained open and free of charge for all but the last six months of the renovation. While construction staff worked like ninjas behind the scenes, the museum continued to host rotating exhibitions. For Alswang, staying open during construction was “imperative. We owed it to our community to remain dynamic and energized.”
When it opens this month, the museum’s 12,000 additional square feet of exhibition space will allow for more flexibility of special exhibitions. Alswang expects the renovation to be a catalyst for gifts of art, and it’s a boon for her curators, who have the space to conceive what would have been unimaginable before.
The Cultural Council of Palm Beach County has been working alongside the Norton during its renovation. Dave Lawrence, the Council’s CEO, is optimistic about the museum’s future.
“I think the impact could be enormous,” he says. “They are a signature and strong cultural partner in the county. They generated $13.4 million in economic impact in fiscal year 2017. When they expand to 37 percent more exhibition space, it’s going to allow even more folks to enjoy and experience the Norton.”
This month marks the end of an era at the Norton in more ways than one: Alswang is retiring as CEO a month after the reopening.
“I’m at the point where I don’t have, sadly, five more years to give them,” she says. “And at minimum, the next phase is going to take five years—which is really strong exhibition and programmatic growth, and fantastic acquisitions.”
Backman will also be moving on, “Which is fine with me,” he says. “I suffer from a restless disposition.”
Alswang shares a similar sentiment: “It’s been an unbelievably exciting process to have been involved in… helping make this thing happen. Anything else will be an anticlimax.”
Bonanza of Exhibitions Opening at the Norton
“NINA CHANEL ABNEY”
The latest in the Norton’s RAW: Recognition of Art by Women series presents work by this bold, graphic painter, whose colorful and timely canvases address hot-button issues.
“GOING PUBLIC: FLORIDA COLLECTORS CELEBRATE THE NORTON”
“Going Public” features works donated by Norton supporters from the Sunshine State—an expansive selection that includes Mary Cassatt, Nick Cave, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Kara Walker among its nearly 50 masterpieces.
“OUT OF THE BOX: CAMERA-LESS PHOTOGRAPHY”
This exhibition offers photography as you’ve never seen it before, with 50 works created without the apparatus of a camera.
“OLDENBURG AND VAN BRUGGEN: THE TYPEWRITER ERASER, A FAVORED FORM”
The Norton will supplement its main entrance sculpture, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X,” with this exhibit of sculpture and works on paper detailing Oldenburg’s longtime obsession with the titular, antiquated object.
“RALSTON CRAWFORD: ACROSS MEDIA”
This small-scale exhibition of the late abstract expressionist features an oil painting, a watercolor and three photographs, three of which are new acquisitions.
“GOOD FORTUNE TO ALL: A CHINESE LANTERN FESTIVAL IN 16TH CENTURY NANJING”
This exhibition unveils six rare, newly restored paintings depicting a Ming Dynasty Lantern Festival.
“WHO? A BRIEF HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY THROUGH PORTRAITURE”
Spanning at least two centuries, “WHO” explores the history of photography through portraiture, featuring works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothe