Art of the North

Anchorage Museum adds new gallery to display expansive collection

By Rachael Kvapil

AGC Winter Art of the North

The best designs are a careful mix of form and function, and bringing them to life is an art of its own. The Anchorage Museum expansion project demonstrates the challenge of creating an engaging space to display a thoughtful northern-themed exhibition without disrupting the museum’s daily operations.

“The purpose of a museum is to preserve and exhibit objects of great public significance and interest,” said museum director/CEO Julie Decker. “There is always space limitation when you have high public demand for exhibitions in art, history, culture and science. This new wing will allow us to start exhibiting artworks we’ve held in storage for quite some time now.”

Over 30,000 artworks plus 500,000 historical maps and photographs are currently held in the public trust, in careful storage. A number of pieces are curated annually for exhibitions in Anchorage and elsewhere; however, some haven’t been on display since they were taken into the museum’s collection. The additional 25,000-square-foot of gallery space will allow the museum to create exhibits from its own rich collection.

“The primary goal of the design is to maximize exhibition space and minimize circulation space,” Decker said. “We want to create as much gallery space as possible and reduce lobbies, hallways and areas with invisible functions.”

Pulling this off has taken teamwork. Decker said the museum chose a local architect, contractor and consultants, in keeping with the Alaska theme of the new galleries.

The design process was started in 2015 with McCool Carlson Green architects (MCG) of Anchorage. John Weir, president/CEO and principal architect, said the decision to build the expansion 5 feet above the oldest areas to the existing building was the only solution, given the limited space surrounding the downtown building.

The museum expansion, he said, used a cantilever and tension system that incorporated four 28,000-pound steel beams as the main horizontal support for the addition to hang the main gallery from the upper structure utilizing support structure with eight columns that penetrate the existing building.

Likewise, the interior gallery uses materials that reflect a northern environment, such as yellow cedar siding locally sourced in Alaska that is both functional and appealing. The Anchorage Museum, architectural firm MCG and general contractor Davis Constructors & Engineers dedicated a year and a half to the structure’s design. Weir said the process was one of the most collaborative he’s ever experienced.

“You need a strong team and strong processes to accomplish successful outcomes,” he said. “We had that from the start and plan on maintaining that mind-set through the project duration.”

Weir said that MCG makes site visits every week and answers questions daily. All this has made it easier for crews to work around the museum’s busy summer hours. Davis Constructors project manager Luke Blomfield said it takes careful timing to complete major structural tasks in a place that’s occupied seven days a week from morning to night. He said crews did their best to be “a fly on the wall” so patrons could enjoy their museum experience uninterrupted.

This meant concealing interior work behind temporary finished walls that displayed artwork in public spaces, and limiting exterior work to times with fewer visitors. Blomfield said that crews managed to minimize closures of the Discovery Center to the general public to only three hours a day during early installation of structural materials.

“Safety is the ultimate driver,” Blomfield said. “We endeavor to maintain museum operations with minimal impacts to the general public and the museum staff.”

Construction of the new gallery spaces are in full swing, with crews currently wrapping up the exterior envelope. Most of the winter will be spent finishing the interior and starting upgrades to an existing gallery installed in the mid-1980s. This project includes adding a new interior entry by cutting a 12-by-24-foot opening in 14-inch concrete and removing 58,000 pounds of material.

Decker said discussions about the new gallery started four years ago when a patron expressed interest in the museum’s stored collections.

The entire project will cost $24 mil-lion. All of 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.

A long rainy spell affected the removal of the existing museum roof early in the project; however, a productive summer and extended fall have kept the expansion on time and on budget. The plan is for contractors to hand over the building in June and the museum to use the summer to curate and install the “Art of the North” exhibit. An official opening reception is scheduled for September.

Rachael Kvapil is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Fairbanks.