Opening up: Spencer Museum renovation brings outside in, enlarges spaces for student-art interaction

photo by: Mike Yoder

Visitors pass by new fourth-floor windows inside the Spencer Museum of Art Wednesday. New exterior views to the west of the museum were a part of the renovations to the museum.

Following a nearly $8 million renovation, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas is a much more open place — physically and conceptually.

The museum will reopen to the public on Oct. 15 after being closed for renovations for the past year and a half.

What was once a facility offering no views other than of the artwork within now takes advantage of its own backyard, campus’s most picturesque green space. The renovation included adding large windows on the building’s west side overlooking Marvin Grove and the World War II Memorial Campanile.

The Spencer’s facade also has been opened up, with all-glass entry doors and a large gallery window overlooking Mississippi Street and the Kansas Union — through which passers-by can also see sculpture on display inside.

The renovations make the Spencer a better place for the university, the community and art to intersect, museum director Saralyn Reece Hardy said.

“We were in this beautiful place on campus and wanted to highlight the beauty of the works of art but also revel in the beauty of the outside,” she said.

“We want the museum to be a welcoming, open place filled with light, stimulating ideas.”

Openness continues in the museum’s revamped teaching gallery and print room, which are both bigger, brighter, more accessible and more easily adaptable than before.

The teaching gallery is dedicated to displaying works of art correlated with subject matter that faculty in other disciplines are teaching, so artworks are rotated frequently, said Celka Straughn, the Spencer’s director of academic programs. (Right now, the 2016 Common Work of Art is displayed with art related to themes of KU’s Common Book, “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

The gallery now has crisp white walls and long glass cases enabling curators to simply unlock them and swap out art, rather than having to mount individual pieces as before. At any given time, only a tiny fraction of the Spencer’s more than 40,000 artworks is on display.

“These are the places where we can make the 96 to 98 percent of the collection that’s not on view accessible,” Straughn said. “That is a space that’s really heavily in demand.”

Just beyond the new teaching gallery is the Goddard Study Center, also known as the print room, named for Spencer associate director and senior curator of works on paper Stephen Goddard. The print room can be reserved by KU classes or community groups to view and discuss art, and it’s open to walk-ins on Fridays.

It, too, is larger than before with more functional shelving for easier rotation of works on paper, Goddard said. The new larger table seats 20 instead of 15, and the room is now handicap accessible.

“It’s certainly more inviting, so we’re more likely to get people in,” Goddard said.

Other new features of the museum include:

• A central open staircase and elevator from the Central Court to the galleries upstairs. Previously, upstairs galleries were only accessible by an out-of-the-way elevator that also led to the art and architecture library, art history classrooms and museum staff offices on the top floor of the building.

• More balcony views from upper-level galleries into the Central Court below.

• A “sprung floor,” which provides shock absorption, throughout the Central Court to make it better for dance performances.

• An audio-looping system in the Central Court for visitors with reduced hearing.

• Charging stations in the entryway, with counter space and stools for students or visitors to sit and work.

Private money funded the project, the museum’s first large-scale renovation since it was built in 1977.

The nearly $8 million used to complete the renovation was contributed by more than 180 individuals and foundations, according to Spencer communications coordinator Elizabeth Kanost.

The renovation involved close to 30,000 square feet of the museum.

Architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (the same firm that designed the famed pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris) designed the renovation, Kanost said. Local architects Sabatini & Associates and Mar Lan Construction carried out the work.

Wednesday evening, KU employees and community partners filled the museum for a special preview event.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said attendee Keeli Nelson, an adviser with KU international programs, who often visits the museum over her lunch hour. “The light — it just makes the space even more welcoming.”

International programs communications director Alison Watkins, taking in the view of the campanile from the upper-level galleries, said she too liked the museum’s new look.

“It’s a beautiful place just to sit,” she said. “I look forward to walking through it and exploring it more thoroughly.”

If you go

The grand reopening of the renovated Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas is scheduled for Oct. 15 and 16.

Events are planned from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 15 and from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 16 at the museum, 1301 Mississippi St. A ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring the KU African Drum Ensemble will kick things off, from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Oct. 15.

Other events include music and dance performances, face painting, hands-on art projects and gallery tours.

Find a detailed schedule of the weekend’s events online at