"Benton Museum of Art has plenty to see for everyone," by Mick Rhodes, Claremont Courier
The spectacular Benton Museum of Art is finally open, and the wait was most certainly worth it.
“Opening day went off without a hitch,” said Benton communications assistant and 2020 Claremont McKenna College grad Caroline Eastburn. “We were so happy to see so many new and familiar faces in the museum. It’s going to be a joyous summer!”
The glistening $44 million facility opened for appointment-based visits at 2 p.m. Tuesday. It was booked up its entire first week, but is accepting reservations going forward at www.pomona.edu/benton.
The large central courtyard and its built-in bench seating includes a massive bronze, “Imbue,” by Scripps College grad Alison Saar, whose installation, “Of Aether and Earthe,” is one of the highlights among the Benton’s inaugural exhibits.
Some of the work inside the museum was created specifically for its launch, such as Alia Ali’s “Love” installation on display in the entry. More of the Yemeni-Bosnian artist’s work, which “explores themes of diaspora, migration, identity and Afro- and Yemeni futurism,” is featured throughout the Benton’s inaugural offerings.
The breathtaking student-curated Permanent Collection Show reads like a greatest hits record from Pomona College’s massive collection, with everything from Claremont art gods Karl Benjamin and Harrison McIntosh, to etchings from 19th century master Francisco de Goya, and a watercolor from contemporary fine artist by way of late 1970s Los Angeles punk rock, Raymond Pettibon. The Permanent Collection Show will only be up for another week, so if you can get an appointment to see it, I highly recommend you check it out.
My favorite new work at the Benton is Helen Pashgian’s transformative “Primavera.” Ms. Pashgian, one of the original members of L.A.’s Light and Space Movement from the 1960s, also created “Primavera” specifically for the Benton. It’s a meditative bit of sleight of hand via light technology, the mechanics of which I was loathe to inquire about, for fear of it becoming something less than potently ethereal in my memory. This subtle, experiential work, combining technology and brash artistic vision, is—like the very best of all artistic endeavors—left to the end user to interpret. Mine? It’s brilliant.
The Benton’s cast-in-place concrete design, by Machado Silvetti and Associates, is clean and cool without being cold. The ceilings are high, as one would expect, especially in the entry, with its striking brass ceiling piece. Glass walls and large windows allow a mid-century modern feel with some spaces bathed in natural light, and others more muted where necessary. The building also nods to Pomona College’s past designers with its Spanish style red tile roof.
At 33,331 square-feet, the Benton nearly triples the space of Pomona College’s former museum, the 1958 Montgomery Art Center. By Claremont standards it’s a massive building, but compared to public museums such as The Getty, whose multiple structures combine to total 940,000 square-feet, or even Pasadena’s relatively petite Norton Simon Museum, at 85,000 square-feet, the Benton is cozy.
Still though, its open, high volume interior feels akin to those spacious landmarks in just how uncompressed one feels strolling its six galleries.
And it’s no accident its doors open to the east and north.
“The idea of the building is to create a lot of transparency, and also to connect Pomona College,” through its east-facing entry, “to the community of Claremont,” with its north-facing door, Ms. Eastburn said. “This is really a building that is for the Clarmontcommunity at large.”
The Benton’s vast and wonderfully diverse permanent collection will finally have room to breathe at its new home. Visitors in the coming years will be able to view large-scale pieces that in some instances have been in storage for decades due to a lack of space.
The museum has classroom spaces adjacent to its 2,000 square-foot vault and its two large collection storage areas, allowing students and academics access to the thousands of works not on the public exhibition floor.
The plan since breaking ground in November 2017 was of course to host an opulent grand opening for donors, students and the community. But, like most big events over the past year, COVID changed those plans.
“We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like,” Ms. Eastburn said, adding that a grand opening celebration is still a possibility somewhere down the line.
The plan was to stagger the Benton’s opening, with students and donors getting the first look, then the public.
“But students haven’t been on campus, and we haven’t been able to open to them,” Ms. Eastburn said. “And since we have this beautiful space and we have all this work up, we really want to share it, so that’s why we’re opening to the public.”