Macalester's artful commons

Article by: Mary Abbe | October 4, 2012 - 1:10 PM

Yes, the freshly renovated Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center has beautiful light and a splendid view of lush Macalester College lawns. Sure, the new art gallery is elegant, and the refurbished concert hall has lovely wood-louvered walls, comfy seats and terrific acoustics.

But maybe, just maybe, it's the free pastries and coffee that have kept Mac students buzzing through the building's sunny atrium. The freebies are set out in two shifts each morning when many of the school's 2,000 students swarm in between classes.

"I promised we'd have free food until fall break, but now there's pressure to keep it up all semester," Mac president Brian Rosenberg said ruefully as he led an informal tour of the $33.8 million renovation and expansion project. The facility's dedication ceremony is scheduled for 12:15 p.m. Friday.

The ambitious 18-month project is the first phase of a multi-year effort to transform an obsolete 1965 arts complex into a campus hub for the St. Paul liberal arts school. The airy two-story atrium, officially dubbed the Lowe Dayton Arts Commons, is the new heart of the brick-and-glass complex. It serves as a shared lobby for the school's music, visual art, theater and dance programs. The former commons area was razed to its foundations and rebuilt, while other elements of the older facility were renovated and expanded. Additional areas will be updated as money permits.

The new spaces include the Law Warschaw Gallery, a glass-and-white-walled exhibition hall adjacent to the atrium. The 317-seat Mairs Concert Hall got a bigger stage, reconfigured seating and updated acoustics; behind it are new rehearsal rooms for vocal and instrumental ensembles. Art history classrooms were spiffed up, too.

The atrium's modernist aesthetic is elegant, functional and often economical, as well. Rather than skylights, which lose heat and often leak, the atrium has a window wall and clerestory windows that flood the space with natural light. The gallery's gleaming charcoal floor looks like stone, but is inexpensive polished concrete. Strips of wood artfully hide acoustic panels on the ceiling and wrap down the walls, where their narrow panels repeat the slender ribs of the balcony railings.

"We decided not to use expensive glass panels in the balcony rails," said architect Tim Carl of the Minneapolis firm HGA, who designed the project. "We wanted to use wood to warm up the room, and this way the wood grille serves as an acoustic baffle and an echo of the black-steel rails, too."

Next up, pending approval by the college's board, will be a much-needed redo of the outmoded studio arts building.Assuming it gets the expected go-ahead, that project is booked for completion in January 2014.

To launch the new art gallery, Macalester art history professor Joanna Inglot turned to internationally known Minneapolis conceptual artist Harriet Bart for a show called "Between Echo and Silence." Bart's serene sculptures, drawings and book-inspired objects fit the new gallery both aesthetically and philosophically. They are, loosely speaking, about memory and loss.

"Harriet is one of the most distinguished artists working in the Twin Cities, and her pristine designs complement the beauty and simplicity of the gallery," said Inglot. "Also, we are in a time of war and meditating about what that means to us as a country, so her work on war is important for our students." "Requiem," for example, consists of seven long paper scrolls on which Bart has written the names of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Beneath a display of military ID tags, arranged in the silhouette of Afghanistan, another sculpture records the names and death dates of more than 2,000 Americans who have died there.

Other works involve poetry, broken words, polished vessels and pendulums -- a recurrent symbol of time, place and rectitude in Bart's work.

"These are my poems: odes in steel, elegies in smoke," Bart said as she finished installing the show.

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