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A Room of Its Own

With the added gallery space, the MFA can dust off and display much of its extensive permanent collection

Take the lobby escalators up, and you hit the best part of the building. The second-floor landing is expansive and flooded with natural light. Devoted to the museum's permanent collection of antiquities and early to modern European art, the galleries provide an effective example of the museum's efforts to fine-tune its collection through appropriate reframing. The recently acquired Jan van Huysum 18th-century Still Life of Flowers and Fruit is rendered in intensely vivid colors on a black background. The painting arrived in a gilt-from-hell French frame but has benefited from a transfer to a period Dutch frame of black ebony, rendering the work striking rather than gaudy.

The second-floor galleries admit varying amounts of natural light via a system of rooftop lanterns and light wells. The wells in the smaller galleries don't seem all that effective. The idea behind the boxed lanterns was also to create a sort of Houston skyline on the roof of the Beck building. They're really nice at night when they glow, but if you compare the sunlight they admit to the light in the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection, it seems paltry. You don't get the unobtrusive but compelling atmosphere that you do with the Renzo Piano-designed buildings at the Menil. Piano's building makes you want to grab a suitcase and move into his gorgeously minimal light-filled space. Perhaps it isn't entirely fair to make comparisons; the Menil buildings, after all, were designed to house a private collection and don't have the extensive and extremely diverse space requirements of an encyclopedic museum.

Lighting issues aside, the second floor is also home to some of the best works from the European painting collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. This long-term loan to the museum marks the first time this much of the collection has been on display at one time. Large parts of the collection were previously on loan to different touring exhibitions.

The Audrey Jones Beck collection of impressionist and Postimpressionist painting has been transferred from the Law building. The Beck gallery walls are painted a sickly saccharine peachy-pink, a shade more appropriate to a women's plus-size polyester blouse in the 75-percent-off rack at Kmart. The distracting color is a carryover from the Law building, and it is a condition Beck mandated for donating the collection. Museum curators have tried to mediate the shade by applying multiple layers of glaze to the walls. It's an extremely expensive process that gives the surface more depth than a flat latex paint, and makes the offending color slightly more palatable.

Behind-the-scenes politics are always involved in acquiring works and raising funds. Bringing together the money for this new addition involved a host of giving incentives, a reality for museums raising cash today. As a result, seemingly every public room, except the toilets, is named after a large individual or corporate donor. You have, for example, the ExxonMobil Information Center Lobby, the Shell Oil Company Foundation Gallery and the William Stamps Farish Fund Dining Room. Had you coughed up a donation of $100,000 or more, your name would have been incised into the shrine o' funding, a 29- by 59-foot limestone wall that dominates the lobby. There are 170 names engraved seven inches high and about an inch deep. It is huge. At my viewing, it dominated the empty lobby. Hopefully its overwhelming scale will be mediated by the Greek and Roman sculpture slated to be installed in the lobby.

As part of the MFA's latest expansion phase, changes have also been made back at the Law building. The second floor is now dedicated to modern and contemporary art from the permanent collection. Previously the Mies van der Rohe-designed building felt like an office lobby; too many temporary walls were needed for most exhibitions. Opened up and showing large-scale art, the space works much better. Richard Long's stone circle arrangements are wonderful on the expansive terrazzo floor. Paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Susan Rothenberg and Philip Guston are dramatically scattered about. The pre-Columbian galleries of the building have also been expanded.

The Beck building is a tremendous milestone in the development of the Museum of Fine Arts. Having achieved it, the MFA will now expand its extensive education and outreach and will focus on acquiring new works to augment the collection, a process that becomes more and more challenging as prices soar and quality objects become increasingly scarce. Marzio feels that the new building enormously increases the museum's responsibility to the community, and it does. The Beck building is a great asset for the MFA and, if it does its job right, for the community in general.

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