Ruth and I took the New York-New Haven Line from Grand Central Terminal on a June morning and were at Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut less than 2 hours later. We were lucky. The free Downtown Union Station shuttle that normally doesn’t run on Saturday and Sunday was parked outside the train station. It dropped us 2 blocks from also free YUAG. If you’re going by car any day, the closest parking garage is at 150 York Avenue.
In 2004, YUAG commenced a stupendous renovation that was completed last year. Ruth and I wanted to see the results. The story of, in my opinion, the finest university art and culture museum in the US began in 1832 with 28 paintings and 60 miniature portraits. Forever expanding, the 1886 and 1928 museum versions have now been seamlessly integrated into the 1953 Louis Kahn design as Gothic met Modern. A contemporary upper level and rooftop sculpture terrace have been added. This all cost $135 million and every penny shows. The new YUAG will celebrate its first anniversary on December 12, 2013.
Some museums are much more than just places to look at art. YUAG qualifies. Eight new classrooms and increased teaching facilities are in use. This is what sets YUAG apart from other art galleries. It has 2 main missions. The 1st is to wow visitors like Ruth and me. The 2nd is to use its collection to inspire and teach Yale students about art. And not just art students, all students. There are 2 new study areas showing items selected by Yale professors for use in current courses. Redoing the entire Yale University Art Gallery allowed it to put a vastly increased number of its works on view. In most museums, I wander around looking at stuff with other long-ago students. Not at YUAG. Here I shared galleries with excited current students of archaeology, foreign languages, African-American studies, etc.
I had no idea Yale had such a vast collection when I first visited a few years ago. Back in 2013 and in awe, I quickly learned to climb every step and ease into every alcove and dark space. Annexes like 2E between the 2nd and 3rd floor contain Yale’s easily missed pre-1900 American Art collection that rivals the Philadelphia Museum. Yale, has, after all, been collecting American masters and the works of other cultures for 250 years. You don’t see just 1 Giacometti here. You find 20 or so of his creations grouped together. It’s easy enough to assume that YUAG is showing off. If so, it’s justifiable.
However, my favorite space didn’t have a mustering of Monets and Renoirs, although they were in European Art. It was the Indo-Pacific collection acquired in 2009 and like nothing I had seen before. It was so impressive that I went through twice marveling at earrings that looked crafted for big-eared weightlifters, Javanese top knots, betel bags, and the gold funeral mask above.
Yale has educated 5 US presidents, 18 Nobel laureates, and 17 Supreme Court justices. I was impressed by this until I looked at Wikipedia’s list of artists it has influenced, like Mark Rothko, class of ’24. Seeing all those bright young visitors, not all art students, made me very optimistic about the future.