Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, June 22, 2001

ALBANY -- At long last, this is not a story about renovation or construction or fund-raising. After two years of all that, there is once again art and history in the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Beginning Saturday, the institute reopens its 125 Washington Ave. facility, which has been closed since May 1999. Visitors can view, free of charge, the brand-spanking-new grandeur of the $17.7 million project from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Special tours and gallery talks will be available both days. Even though the building isn't fully completed, and the grand opening is scheduled for September, this weekend offers the public a sneak peak at the entire museum. Beginning Tuesday, a section of the museum will have regular visiting hours for several small exhibits now installed in the completed galleries.

The chief attraction of the weekend surely will be the building project itself, however, with its dramatic glass entrance atrium, elegantly landscaped grounds, refurbished and updated galleries, expanded education department, completely new library, Rice Gallery and museum shop and state-of-the-art backstage areas for storage and exhibit preparation.

Areas of priority

The two floors of gallery space and the new two-story sculpture gallery offer increased exhibition space thanks to a new floor plan and the removal of windows and other obstructions to provide much-needed wall space. The exhibition halls also feature much-improved lighting (including six skylights in the top floor) and air conditioning. Gone are the loud, windy floor fans of the old museum.

And after scoping out the building itself, there is art to look at. To inaugurate the new spaces and set the tone for what the museum staff is calling the ``new museum,'' chief curator Tammis Groft, history curator Wes Balla, research curator Mary Alice MacKay and education director Ted Lind have prepared a half-dozen small but fine exhibits from the permanent collection that highlight, as Groft explained, the institute's ongoing ``areas of priority.''

These include 19th-century art from the upper Hudson Valley, decorative arts, Albany's ethnic history and culture, and contemporary art and photography of the region. Each of these categories is presented in a separate exhibit:

* ``Common Bonds: People, Stories and Objects of Albany'' contains an eclectic mix of artifacts that reveal the city's ethnic and racial history as seen through the lenses of migration, business, culture, family and diversity. A continuation of the museum's ongoing ``City Neighbors'' project, the show covers Albany history from the Dutch settlers to the O'Connell Democratic machine.

* Representing the institute's vast collection of decorative arts, which extends from silver to crockery to cast-iron stoves, is a quietly engaging array of some 25 side chairs from the museum's store of nearly 300 pieces of ``seating furniture.'' The exhibit celebrates the craft and design that builders across some 300 years have brought to this everyday object. Context and commentary on the objects, their owners and their milieu is provided by an accompanying display of period paintings and prints.

The celebrity chair of the show is a rare Chinese cinnabar ``chair of state'' from the Qing Dynasty, 1736-50. Once used in the throne room of the summer palace in the Forbidden City, the red-lacquer seat is carved with an intricate design of dragons, bats, clouds, waves and lotus scrolls.

* In ``The Real and the Ideal,'' the institute debuts its small but growing collection of regional contemporary photography. A baker's dozen prominent local camera artists, among them Joseph Levy, Phyllis Galembo, Sandy Noyes, Jack Shearer and David Brickman, contribute an eclectic mix of documentary-style photos and interpretive images.

``We couldn't have done this 10, even five years ago,'' Groft said. Accompanying the contemporary collection are a series of 19th- and early 20th-century pictorial photographs recently uncovered in the museum's library archives.

* The institute has long been collecting the work of living regional artists, and Groft has skimmed off the cream of that collection in a show titled ``Landscapes and Mindscapes.'' The new 1,300-square-foot North Gallery, once a kitchen, member's lounge and two small exhibition spaces, has been installed with effective minimalism with just a dozen paintings and four sculptures. Included are old favorites such as Ellworth Kelly's drawing ``String Bean Leaves II,'' Richard Clanner's watercolor ``Red Fields, East of Madrid'' and Larry Kagan's steel wall sculpture ``We Are Losing Our Ozone.''

The show also has newly acquired works by Don Nice, Leigh Wen and Wendy Williams. ``Nocture for the Riverkeeper, Green Light,'' a large landscape by painter Stephen Hannock, has been given to the institute by the Albany-raised, New York-based artist. The twilight view of the Hudson includes a written soliloquy that reads, in part, ``This particular location is south of Garrison and across the river from West Point ... a quiet, almost poetic passage of the river just before the pyrotechnics start.''

Other exhibits on view include an examination of the career of 19th-century Albany Impressionist Walter Launt Palmer and a display of eclectic treasures highlighting the museum's work in education, art conservation and collecting.

Two stages

``It's a lot to reopen a whole facility this size,'' Groft explained when asked why the museum was opening its doors in two stages rather than all at once. ``Having this `soft' opening is a chance to see how things work, see how they look. It's a dress rehearsal,'' she said, for the September grand opening.

Groft allowed that for the entire institute staff the stakes feel much higher than before. ``We see ourselves on a different playing field. We basically feel we have new jobs at a new museum.''




``Soft Opening''

Where: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany

This weekend: Open noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Thereafter: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (Wednesday till 8 p.m.); noon-5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free this weekend. Tuesday through August, $2.50 adults, $2 seniors/students, $1.25 children 6-12

Info: 463-4478; http://albanyinstitute.org