At their best, college art museums serve multiple functions. First and foremost, they are teaching facilities where students learn art history and museum curating skills. But often they are also local and regional cultural resources. The new Benton Art Museum at Pomona College in Claremont, California, is such a place.
“We’re in eastern Los Angeles County, adjacent to Riverside and Orange Counties. Historically the inland areas of greater L.A. have not been well served by cultural venues,” said Victoria Sancho Lobis, director of the Benton. “We aim to change that. We’re free and open to the public. We’re not motivated by the need to generate revenue. That allows us to be innovative and experimental, pushing forward a concept of what a college museum can be.”
The Benton was originally scheduled to open in the Fall of 2020, but California’s COVID protocols caused it to close for many months. It’s now in the midst of what Lobis called a “soft opening” in anticipation of a full opening upon Pomona students’ return in late August.
Museum Director Lobis assumed her post at the beginning of 2020, just before the onset of COVID. She was previously a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“We now have all of our collections under one roof for the first time,” Lobis said. “This new building will allow us to mount shows that are beautiful, engaging, and provocative.”
The Benton Art Museum was designed by the Boston-based Machado Silvetti in collaboration with the Los Angeles office of Gensler serving as the architect of record. Machado Silvetti principal and cofounder Jorge Silvetti took special care to ensure the design reflected the museum’s varied roles.
“We tried to make it part of the campus and part of the city,” Silvetti said. “It is Pomona’s first important educational building that is outside of the traditional boundaries of the campus.” Silvetti’s colleague Jeffry Burchard, also a firm principal, added: “A museum is an incredible connector between what’s going on on campus and what’s going on in the community.”
For his part, the Argentine-born Silvetti averred that his own Latin roots informed the design. “I’m no stranger to courtyards,” he said. Courtyards and covered walkways allow patrons to enjoy the Mediterranean climate. It is constructed of poured-in-place concrete and western red cedar wood, and when the landscaping becomes mature the walls will be decked in bougainvillea.
The building is pursuing a LEED Gold certification. “There’s the cooling effects of concrete,” Burchard said. “It absorbs heat much more slowly and keeps the interiors comfortable.”
As a teaching facility, the museum’s collections, which include European painting and a substantial representation of Native American art, are situated such that students and faculty can have easy access to them to learn curatorial and museum administration skills. “Students have constant access to the archives while protecting the archives,” Burchard said.
The museum was conceived as a continuation of the orthogonal passageways that overlay the larger campus. Silvetti uses the term “tartan plaid” to refer to this. A number of cross-axes provide access and views across the sloping site, while holding together a composition of interior and exterior spaces. The museum is a visually porous building allowing patrons to glimpse activity taking place within as well as enjoying the southern California weather.
“The design is a success largely because of the climate,” Burchard added.
Silvetti added that the choice of concrete as the primary building material was rooted in the campus’s Beaux Arts structures, which are also largely crafted of concrete. The original 1908 campus plan by architect Myron Hunt is exceedingly formal and symmetrical.