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New wing of museum takes flight toward the future

The new wing of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is a spectacular step forward for the museum and for the arts at Cornell. The wing will be on the north side of the Johnson and will be largely underground, in accordance with the original plan of the museum. It will add 16,000 square feet to the original building of 62,000 square feet, designed 35 years ago by I.M. Pei. It will have a new entrance, new galleries, new storage, teaching and office space and our first dedicated lecture room. It also will allow important changes to take place in the original building -- 50 percent more exhibition space on our famous fifth floor, with its beautiful views and comprehensive Asian collection; a new open storage, with hundreds of previously inaccessible works from the collection; and a photographic study center.

Why is all this important? What will the new museum, which we hope will be ready by 2010 or 2011, mean for our 90,000 visitors every year? The key is our mission -- education. This is what Cornell as a whole is all about, and the Johnson is an integral part of that. In this wing, not only will we be able to show hundreds of works of art new to our visitors, but those works will be installed in arrangements and sequenced galleries that will be easier to "read." The visitor -- the Cornell student or the K-12 schoolchild or the interested Ithacan -- will be able to understand the flow of art history more clearly and will have more tools, such as personal digital assistants and audio tours, to help him or her navigate the museum.

At the same time, the museum's offerings, already remarkably diverse, will become more so, giving the visitor a deeper immersion into special aspects of our collection -- for example, Asian art, photography and African and pre-Columbian American art. The full range of human creativity will be more accessible and comprehensible to everyone.

Behind the scenes, increased storage and reoriented office and classroom spaces will allow us to do our job more quickly and more effectively.

We have, so far, raised more $18.5 million of the $20 million we need for the whole project. These funds include several generous grants from the Kresge Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other foundations, but the bulk of the funds are the result of truly generous, immensely helpful gifts from Cornell alumni, their families and friends of the university.

The Johnson has always been a haven, a place for personal growth and education -- and self-education. It will continue to be that, even more than ever before. Our visitors' greatly increased accessibility to our superb global collection and our cornucopia of education programs for young and old, students and laymen will mean greater awareness of other cultures, other centuries and other values, greater openness, respect and understanding of our neighbors around the world.

Our official groundbreaking will take place this Saturday, May 17, 1 to 3 p.m., with music, balloons, ice cream and fun for everyone; I hope you can join us for this special celebration.

Frank Robinson is the Richard J. Schwartz Director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell.

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