August 7th, 2014
by Geoff Ledger
GLOUCESTER — The recently rehung Fitz Henry Lanes are just around the corner and there’s a redone entry gallery at the Cape Ann Museum. But director Ronda Faloon’s first stop on a tour of the just-renovated museum is the new restroom.
This is not so much to show off the added convenience — look, it’s right near the front door — but because she’s proud of the ceramic art on its walls. Diane KW, a multimedia artist who splits time between Hawaii and Gloucester, used shards of ceramics recovered from shipwrecks to create an installation that stretches from a hallway into the bathroom itself.
“It’s certainly different,” said Faloon with a smile, admitting that when KW first approached her about decorating the space, she asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Today, as the museum prepares to reopen on Aug. 19 after 10 months of renovations, the restroom is a highlight meant to make a larger point: Museum building projects don’t need to add massive wings and glitzy performance spaces to make a difference. The details do count.
Beyond the new bathroom, there are abundant small changes at the Cape Ann Museum, a cozy and often overlooked gem with a collection and mission connected to the region. In addition to Lane, the museum’s holdings include works by Winslow Homer, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Nell Blaine, and Milton Avery. Faloon hopes that, over time, the museum’s $3.5 million renovation project will help increase attendance, which hovers at around 20,000 visitors a year. She also wants to build the case for another fund-raising campaign, this time for an expansion. The current renovation has added just 350 square feet of gallery space to the 30,000 square feet that existed.
Which is not to say that Faloon is disappointed. She believes the improvements were essential.
These include a remade orientation lobby, rehung galleries, and dramatically improved lighting and wall space for the prized collection of works by native son Fitz Henry Lane.
“We certainly need more space,” said Faloon. “But we were taking it one step at a time, and we wanted to take care of what we had first, before we moved on to the next step.”
There has been growth. The Cape Ann Museum, founded in 1873 as the Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association, has been, depending on your perspective, notable for its mom-and-pop, hometown charm or its air of inaccessible exclusivity.
Ken Riaf, a lawyer with an office across Pleasant Street, remembers the institution from when he was growing up in Gloucester in the 1970s.
“There were no signs,” he said. “If you were curious and inclined, you would find it. You would ring the doorbell and someone would come to the door and open it a little bit, and they’d go, ‘Yes?’ ”
William James, a Rockport native and museum board member for two decades, said the museum used to serve as a kind of “repository” for art from the area.
“There was more of a sense of a Yankee kind of frugality and being very conservative in terms of what the museum was,” he said. “Those people did actually endow the place with great art. Now, it’s about exposing that not only to the community and Cape Ann, but to the country.”
In the last decade, the museum has doubled its budget to $1.1 million, increased from five to 10 its full-time staffers, and added programs and exhibitions. The first exhibition of work by a living artist was Walker Hancock’s sculpture in 1989, said Faloon. These days, contemporary artists are featured regularly.
Of course, the museum’s main attraction hasn’t changed.
The Fitz Henry Lane collection is the largest in the world, including more than 40 oil paintings and 100 pencil drawings. Some works were given by local families in the early part of the 20th century, others purchased by the late curator Alfred Mansfield Brooks. Lane (1804-65) painted many of his maritime scenes from vantage points on Cape Ann.
The renovated Lane gallery now features more drawings and lithographs, period furniture, and a dramatic upgrade in lighting from 10 fixtures to 120. The gallery remains on the ground floor.
“We thought about possibly moving the gallery upstairs, but I think we realized that this is the place where it has always been,” said Faloon. “This really is our premier collection. This should be the first room you go to before you go anywhere else.”
That aside, much of the renovation consisted of changes visitors might not see. The outdated heat and air conditioning system required so much maintenance that it cost roughly $80,000 a year to run, nearly 8 percent of the annual budget. There was no sprinkler system in some spaces.
On top of the $3.5 million renovation costs, Faloon helped raise $1.5 million to add staff, design the museum’s website, and add seed money for an acquisition fund. About $100,000 from the $5 million total raised by the campaign will pay for creating an online catalog of Lane’s work.
One gallery feature will be hard for visitors to miss. A 10-foot-tall glass lens from a 19th-century lighthouse on Thacher Island in Rockport has been installed in a room converted from an open terrace. Bathed by light from above, the lens casts a kaleidoscope of colors throughout the space, the experience changing with the changing sunlight.
“It’s beautiful, it’s over the top, really, to come around the corner and see that room,” said curator Martha Oaks.
Riaf, who has been given a tour by a trustee friend, said he’s been impressed by the efforts the museum has made to change its approach. He mentions the small sculpture park across the street from the entrance, as well as the renovation itself.
“Step by step, they’re moving into the community,” he said. “It’s a new day and age.”
James, the longtime board member, said that it is too early to know when the Cape Ann Museum will expand. This renovation, though, was an important first step.
“It’s a project that took a long time for an unusual museum that’s gone through a lot of changes in how it wants to be viewed,” he said. “This was kind of a coming-out project.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe