Transformed Norton Museum of Art reopens to rave reviews

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By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted March 3, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH — Stroll around the galleries in the Norton Museum of Art these days and you’ll be dazzled by all the magnificent works adorning the walls.

Here’s Pablo Picasso and there’s Claude Monet. Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe. Winslow Homer, Jackson Pollack, Paul Gauguin and, yes, students from the Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach.

But don’t be surprised if you leave thinking the newly redesigned museum is the most magnificent work of all.

“If we were a car, we would’ve been a 12-year-old Volkswagen,” says Hope Alswang, the museum’s executive director and CEO for the past nine years who will officially retire March 1. “And someone handed us a Lamborghini.”

In fact, nobody handed the 78-year-old museum anything. The redesigned, reconfigured and reimagined Norton that reopened Feb. 9 came after eight years of hard work, $110 million in donations from generous philanthropists and a lot of vision.

The result is so startlingly different from the museum’s previous incarnation, it almost seems dishonest to call this a redesign.

“I don’t even feel like I’m in South Florida anymore!” exclaims Meghan Hurley of Palm Beach on a recent visit, perusing the paintings in the third floor’s European Collection. “I grew up here, I’ve been to this museum before, and I don’t recognize it. This is another world.”

Opened on Feb. 8, 1941, the museum first housed the private collection of paintings and sculptures donated by Ralph Hubbard Norton, (1881-1953), a Chicago steel industrialist. The population of Palm Beach County was not quite 80,000.

Today, the county is nearing 1.5 million and the collection has grown to more than 7,600 pieces. And so, in September 2011, Alswang and the board of directors sat down to create a Norton for the 21st century.

Alswang remembers a day in 2010 when Norton trustee Gil Maurer asked her who her first choice would be for an architect to redesign the Norton.

“Norman Foster,” she told him.

Lord Norman Foster’s company, Foster+Partners, created the Great Court for The British Museum in London, the expanded Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. and airports in Hong Kong and Beijing.

And now, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

On Feb. 6, 2016, ground was broken and three years later, it’s here, a virtually new museum with a whole array of new programs to offer the public.

Remember that former entrance way, the circular drive and parking lot at the south end bordering Cranesnest Way? It’s now a 37,000-square-foot sculpture garden with space for outdoor events and movies under the stars. On the wide expanse of grass stand three “Total Strangers,” life-size, cast-iron nudes by British sculptor Anthony Gormley.

Looking out on the garden is a glass-enclosed, 150-foot-long indoor sculpture gallery, flooded with light from the garden.

“The whole concept was to create a museum in a garden,” says Scott Benarde, Norton’s director of communications.

The new entrance faces South Dixie Highway, shaded by a majestic 80-year-old banyan tree that towers over a reflecting pool and “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X,” a giant five-ton, 19-foot-tall sculpture by Clased Oldenburg and his wife Cooseje van Bruggen.

“My mother is 93, and when she came down from New Jersey to see the museum she brought me a real typewriter eraser to show people what one looks like,” Benarde said with a chuckle.

Step inside past the reception desk and you’re in the Great Hall with its 44-foot-high ceiling, tables, chairs, reading lamps, a coffee bar and special event seating capacity of 400.

“Officially, it’s the Shapiro Great Hall,” Benarde explains, “but we call it the living room. We want people to feel they can come in off the street and sit here, read, have a cup of coffee.”

Just beyond the living room is the new gift shop and looking on the garden is “The Restaurant at the Norton,” with seating for 165 and dining available both inside and on the garden terrace. Meal prices range from $12 to $28.

Entrance to the Great Hall, museum shop and restaurant is free.

Before the renovation, the museum’s interior totaled 120,300 feet. Now it’s 133,000 square feet, a mere 12,000 square-foot increase. But with Foster’s ingenious design, it feels much bigger. Unlike the old Norton, the new museum’s three floors are filled with light and the iconic banyan tree is frequently visible. 

This is a museum that says, “Come in.”

“All this allows us to do a whole lot more and improve our programming,” Benarde says.

On Feb. 16, the museum celebrated the Chinese New Year with a day of dances, music and lectures that concluded with a fireworks display.

In March, the popular “Art After Dark” series will host artist Nick Cave, discussing his multimedia use of sculpture, video, sound and dance. All Art After Dark nights are free.

There’s a new lecture series, and “Live! At The Norton,” an offering of monthly concerts. And there’s a brand new, 210-seat auditorium in which to present them.

Climb the stairs to the second floor and you’ll find the William Randolph Hearst Education Center, 4,000 square feet of classrooms with a student gallery where works by students from 12 area schools are on display. Currently, there’s an exhibition titled “Defining Community,” that runs through March 10.

One recent morning, Nancy Metzger of Boynton Beach stood in the gallery admiring “Shopping,” a watercolor of storefronts by Siena Barefoot, a seventh-grader at the Bak Middle School of the Arts.

“This is incredible,” she marvels. “I’ve been seeing the new museum on TV, so I had to come up and see what it was. Now I can’t wait until I get company so I can bring them again.” 

A Chinese gallery, a European gallery, American, Contemporary and Photography galleries – all this and so much more – is what $110 million will buy.

And it also bought you a ticket.

Every Friday and Saturday, museum admission is free to one and all, thanks to $1 million donations from the Peter and Paula Lunder family and the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

On March 2, Hope Alswang will hand over the leadership of the museum to incoming director Elliot Bostwick Davis. But at the Feb. 9 grand opening, she requested only one song from the quintet entertaining in the forecourt.

John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Why?

“It took a lot of people, eight years and a lot of money,” she told the throng eager to be let in. “But mostly it took a lot of imagination.”

IF YOU GO:

WHERE: The Norton Museum of Art is at 1450 S. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach.

HOURS: The Norton is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is closed Wednesdays and major holidays.

COST: $18 for general admission; $15 for seniors 65 and over; free for children 12 and under; $5 for students. Admission is free for active military and their immediate family and teachers. Admission is free to everyone every Friday and Saturday.

PARKING: Parking is free across the street at 1501 S. Dixie Hwy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go online to norton.org or call (561) 832-5196.

Pictured above: Ann Langer, right, of Deerfield Beach, examines one of artist Nick Cave’s Soundsuits at the Norton Museum of Art, just days after the museum reopened to the public on Saturday, Feb. 9. Cave is known for his unique fabric sculptures and performances. Photo by Gina Fontana/Palms West Monthly

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