The Joslyn Art Museum is going big.
Museum leaders on Wednesday are unveiling an ambitious expansion plan, one that will add a new building to the land Joslyn has occupied since 1931.
They are also unveiling the architecture firm handpicked to design that new building — the same firm that designed the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, reimagined an ancient Egyptian library and expanded the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
It’s a big-time move, a big-money move, a big-city move.
It’s the sort of thing that needs to happen, and happen again, as we try to make future Omaha better than its past or present.
“It’s in the context of encountering things like art that we as a community have occasion to come together,” says Paul Smith, chairman of Joslyn’s board and member of the committee that selected the architecture firm Snøhetta to lead the expansion.
“That makes us a better community. It makes us a better city. It can affect the way we view ourselves, and how others view us.”
The expansion plan, which is in its early stages, will have Snøhetta and local architecture firm Alley Poyner Macchietto design a new building to be built somewhere on the existing Joslyn property off 24th and Dodge Streets. The expansion will also include new landscape design.
So far, there’s no price tag on the project, or renderings of the proposed building, or even a timeline for completion — at least none that I could pry from Joslyn Director Jack Becker or board members.
Becker did say that the new building will be completed sooner rather than later, and he laughed when I asked if it would take a decade.
“Ten years is ridiculous,” he said. “This is a town that likes to get things done. We are mindful that we want to move forward and not dally.”
What I can tell you is that there’s a palpable excitement about the project from Becker, board members and donors who were buzzing as they entered a museum lecture hall Monday afternoon to hear a presentation from Snøhetta representatives.
Four of the firm’s architects, including founding partner Craig Dykers, walked the crowd through other projects the international firm has designed. The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo. The revival of the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt. The public spaces in New York City’s Times Square. And, recently, the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
To my untrained eye, these are stunning, daring structures. Several feature ample outdoor public space — the public can actually climb the ramped sides of the Norwegian opera and hang out on the roof garden, free of charge.
These are also buildings that attempt to reflect the landscapes and the cities in which they are built, Dykers said. Snøhetta will do the same for Omaha, he said, without obscuring or overwhelming what already stands.
The original Joslyn museum, a $3 million, widely celebrated art deco project, opened in 1931. Then, in 1994, the Walter and Suzanne Scott Pavilion added 58,000 square feet to the museum. Renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster designed that $16 million addition, connecting it to the original museum with a towering glass atrium.
Dykers called the current museum “endearing.” He promised the crowd that Snøhetta would respect it while designing a new building that would push Joslyn to become “more of the global community of museums.”
“People will look at Joslyn from very, very far away,” Dykers said. “They will see something that is a vibrant new example in the new century for what a museum can be.”
The new building will most likely showcase some of the 50 pieces of high-profile contemporary art promised to the Joslyn by the Schrager family, though those works haven’t yet been given to the museum.
The Joslyn calls the Schrager donation “the single most important gift of art to Joslyn Art Museum since its founding days.”
Phillip Schrager founded the Pacesetter Corp. in Omaha in 1962, selling windows, doors and home repair products and building a company that was for decades the biggest of its kind in the country.
During that time, Schrager also began to amass a giant collection of contemporary American art — a collection considered one of the best in the region when he died in 2010.
Terri Schrager, Phillip’s wife, signed the nonbinding agreement with the Joslyn in 2016. At the same time, Joslyn leaders began discussing a new building as a way to prominently display that gift and the museum’s other contemporary art.
When completed, the new building would give the Joslyn more room in its existing space to show more older European and American art, including its extensive collection of Native American art. Becker, however, cautioned that nothing is yet set in stone.
Expansion will also allow the museum to increase the amount of arts programming it does for everyone from babies in strollers to elderly Omahans with Alzheimer’s, Becker said.
Attendance has boomed at the Joslyn in the past decade, spurred by the museum eliminating its entrance fee in 2013. The museum hosted nearly 200,000 people last year, a 62 percent increase since 2010.
Its two classrooms are always booked, Becker said. The new building will ease the space crunch and allow for more studio space and art-based learning.
The museum, including the new building, will remain free for visitors.
Becker said he viewed the expansion through the lens of Sarah Joslyn, who made the art museum a gift to Omaha after her husband’s death and, 87 years ago, uttered these words on opening day: “If there is any good in it, let it go on and on.”
The new building, Becker thinks, will help the Joslyn go on, and go up, in the decades to come.
“I believe in a public art museum, and a space that helps define the city,” Becker said.
“We aren’t building for the sake of building. In many ways we are trying to fulfill (Sarah Joslyn’s) legacy and her gift to the community. It is each generation’s burden to fulfill that legacy.”