To build a masterpiece, sometimes you have to study the masters. This philosophy guided the design and construction of the recently completed Anchorage Museum expansion project. Sixteen months after Davis Constructors & Engineers started the initial site work, the Anchorage Museum is installing a new exhibition that will highlight Northern landscapes and cultures.
“As part of our research, we traveled to a dozen museums around the world to visit the best architecture and take some hints from their structural design,” said John Weir, president/CEO and principal architect of McCool Carlson Green (MCG) architects of Anchorage.
With inspiration from places such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the new 25,000-square-foot gallery is a reflection of life in the north. From the yellow cedar siding to the lighting, MCG considered every detail needed for an exhibition space that will feature artwork and photographs residing in the museum’s collection.
Yet, every inner-city expansion project has its own unique challenges. With limited space surrounding the building, MCG designed the new gallery 5 feet above the existing structure on the north side of the museum with additional renovations at street level at the north and east sides of the museum.
“When you work on something important like a cultural institution, you render a lot of attention to getting it right,” Weir said. “It’s high precision. Almost like designing furniture as opposed to construction.”
Discussions about museum expansion started about five years ago when a patron expressed interest in the museum’s stored collections. MCG began the design process soon after, working closely with the Anchorage Museum and Davis Constructors & Engineers for a year and a half before starting construction in February 2016. With some creative thinking, Davis Constructors managed to work throughout the year without disrupting the museum’s daily operations.
“We found a temporary partition solution that was easy and sustainable,” Davis project manager Luke Blomfield said. “Instead of building a temporary wall, we used adult-sized Legos to create a 6-foot wall.”
This allowed them to develop a phasing plan that cut high traffic areas like the atrium, cafeteria and Discovery Center into small work sections without having to close them completely. This became essential in the summer when the museum is open seven days a week, 12 hours a day. In the winter, crews had a bit more leeway when the museum was closed Mondays. They also utilized evening hours as much as possible.
The entire project will cost $24 million. All the cost is being funded through private contributions, with a $12 million gift from the Rasmuson family and a $12 million gift from the Rasmuson Foundation. Good use of time and resources allowed Davis Constructors to develop project savings for the museum to reinvest into the project. The museum had a long list of requested items that initially didn’t fit into the budget; however, as savings developed, they were able to include all the items on their wish list.
“A great example is the flooring,” Blomfield said. “Originally the gallery was scheduled to have a polished concrete floor. However, when we completed the building envelope we reduced a significant amount of the project risk and were able to utilize recognized project savings for upgrades to the public experience. On the top of the list was providing reclaimed wood floors, so now there are wood floors throughout the entire expansion space.”
Blomfield said this was possible because of great teamwork with MCG and the Anchorage Museum. He said all entities were proactive, decisive and highly collaborative. Julie Decker, museum director/CEO, described it as one of the best experiences she has had working with a team.
“Everyone was extremely professional,” she said. “They were a tremendous team that created a tremendous product.”
The new wing opened to the public Sept. 15, with extended hours and discounted admission from 6 to 9 p.m. The Art of the North exhibition curated for this space focuses on developing a narrative of the north. The exhibit features documentary works from expedition artists, along with Romantic landscapes by 19th- and 20th-century painters and works by contemporary artists including indigenous artists. In the past, museums have segregated indigenous artwork from traditional, modern and contemporary works. In this installation, the styles will be combined.
“This is a great benefit to the museum moving forward,” Decker said. “This expansion allows us to fulfill our mission to create a dedicated physical space for art, history, science and culture. We’re not just a museum. We are also a community center. This expansion is a long-term gift that belongs to the city.”
Rachael Kvapil is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Fairbanks.