A nice touch as you enter the newly refurbished and extended Norton Museum in Palm Beach, Florida, on the wall of acknowledgements it says in the characteristic font which has been used throughout the Museum: ‘FOSTER & PARTNERS 2019 – NORMAN FOSTER, FECIT’.
Opened earlier this month, on the 9th of February, the relatively simple, classical, perfectly-detailed new extension to the Norton Museum provides the space to confirm it as one of the most important art museums in Florida. The architects had a difficult job to do, both to provide substantial additional display areas and unify the different stages of the Museum’s development.
The Museum dates back to 1941 when it was founded by Ralph Hubbard Norton and his first wife, Elizabeth Calhoun Norton. Norton, at one time the head of the Acme Steel Co, moved to West Palm Beach when he retired and established the Norton Museum to show his extensive collection of art. The original Art Deco building (of which architectural details remain) was substantially extended around a new courtyard between 2003 and 2006, including a glass ceiling installation commissioned from Dale Chihuly, the courtyard providing much-needed orientation to the enlarged museum. The new extension by Foster & Partners had to work around an ancient banyan tree at the front, which is framed by the mirrored roof canopy and in views out from the inside. At the front, the new extension provides a sequence of public spaces – the auditorium with its own entrance, a lofty café space, entrance and reception, a large shop and a restaurant which spills out into the new sculpture garden at the rear alongside which runs a new sculpture gallery, thus connecting inside and out.
Orientation at this end of the building is provided by the new staircase which runs up through the building to the galleries on the 2nd and 3rd floors, the well-placed windows of which provide viewing opportunities to the gardens at the front and rear, while not compromising gallery environmental conditions. Repeating Chihuly’s commission, the staircase has an installation through its complete height by the American artist Rob Wynne, and the whole building has been refurnished in order to integrate the display galleries while allowing previous architectural differences to remain.
The scale of the art collection on display is impressive, much of it from private donations given and promised, with a strong focus on American art, though there are substantial European and Chinese collections, with the permanent collection supplemented by temporary displays including one on the development of the sculpture in a reflective pool outside the entrance by the Swedish/American artist Claes Oldenberg, inspired by a typewriter eraser. There is also a photographic gallery, currently focussed on portrait photography and, on occasion, the curators have mixed contemporary artists such as British artist Jenny Saville into the historic collections to liven things up. Bold decisions have also been taken in some of the galleries to move away from the ubiquitous white walls, so beloved of art museums, to change the colour to add drama and context to some of the more historic art.
The new ensemble is a great success and places Palm Beach firmly on the art map with the Norton Museum as one of the major art museums in the south of the United States.