The rebirth of one of Palm Beach County’s most revered cultural institutions is set to continue Ralph Norton’s legacy long into the future

On February 9, the doors will open on a new chapter in the life of West Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art. After three years of major reconstruction, the much anticipated “new” Norton will be revealed: the Kenneth C. Griffin West Wing with 50,000 square feet of spacious galleries, a 210-seat auditorium, a 4,000-square-foot education center, a sculpture garden, a restaurant and private dining area with indoor and outdoor seating, 17,500 square feet of event space, and 12,000 square feet of administrative office space—all with the promise to present world-class exhibitions and ensure the Norton’s future as an important cultural destination. 

A new vision for the museum was prompted by the need to accommodate a growing collection, increased education programs, population growth, and a desire to give the building a distinctive identity and presence regionally and locally. “The primary objective was to bring the museum into the twenty-first century on multiple levels,” explains Hope Alswang, the museum’s executive director and CEO.

The board of trustees, along with an enthusiastic group of generous Palm Beach donors, raised $107 million for a major renovation and expansion. A donation of $16 million, with an additional $4 million to endow the director’s position, came from the Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Fund—the largest donation in the Norton’s 78-year history. On February 6, 2016, the Norton broke ground on what was to be a transformative rebuild of the campus under the leadership of Alswang, with the creative architectural design plan conceived by Pritzker Prize–winning British architect Lord Norman Foster, founder and executive chairman of Foster + Partners.

The Space

The new design eliminated all but the original East Wing galleries in the Art Deco period, with its interior courtyard at the center—a lasting reminder of the museum’s beginnings. Says Foster: “The new extension of the museum represents an exciting opportunity to place the reinvigorated Norton at the heart of Florida’s cultural life and to establish its international presence, allowing more people to enjoy the very special collection. Reinforcing its natural setting with a ‘museum in a garden,’ our aim has been to restore a sense of clarity to the existing building by reasserting the logic of the original plan; creating new event and visitor spaces that will transform the museum into the social heart of the community; as well as increasing the gallery and exhibition spaces to engage with a wider audience, both local and national.” 

The new main entrance lies at the West Wing on South Dixie Highway, graced by the familiar 80-year-old, 65-foot-tall banyan tree at the forecourt and reflecting pool. Anchoring the main entrance is Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s monumental pop art sculpture Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1998-99), gifted to the museum by Ronnie Heyman. 

At the center of the museum is the 3,600-square-foot skylighted Ruth and Carl Shapiro Great Hall, with lounge seating, a coffee bar, a piano and book carts, and a display area for site-specific installations; while the Grand Hall stairway leads visitors between collection galleries in the West Wing. The new design provides 37 percent more exhibition space to display the museum’s permanent collection, with galleries dedicated to photography and the expansion of the Norton’s special exhibition program.

“Art is at the center of the new Norton expansion, and the curators are excited about the reinstallation of our collections and showcasing them in all of our new spaces,” says Cheryl Brutvan, director of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art. “This is the most exciting season in the museum’s history, and we feel very fortunate to be part of it.”

At the southern end of the 6.3-acre campus, the former visitors’ parking area and main entrance has become an open-air extension of the museum—Foster’s very first garden. The intriguing design features “garden rooms” that mimic the original pavilions of the 1941 museum master plan, with each room, or space, defined by native trees and plantings. There is an extensive lawn area for outdoor programs and events, an art walk, and the Pamela and Robert B. Goergen Garden featuring 11 modern and contemporary sculptures by artists including Keith Haring, George Rickey, and Mark di Suvero. Artist-in-residence accommodations and studios are located in a series of restored historic 1920s houses along the perimeter, and two of the homes have been joined together to form the director’s residence.

The Collection

At the museum’s core lies the permanent collection established by Ralph and Elizabeth Norton. Norton accumulated his wealth at the Acme Steel Company in Chicago and first came to winter in West Palm Beach with his family in the 1920s. They lived on Barcelona Road in the burgeoning neighborhood of El Cid, a few streets south of the museum (now the Ann Norton
Sculpture Gardens, a separate institution). It was the Nortons’ wish to establish a museum for the community, which would house their collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sculptures and paintings. The art deco–style, single-story building was conceived by architect Marion Sims Wyeth and opened on February 8, 1941, flanked on either side of the original eastern entrance by two Paul Manship sculptures owned by Norton, Diana and Actaeon (they remain in place to this day). In those early years, the museum was also an educational institution known as the Norton Gallery and School of Art.

After Elizabeth’s death, Norton married Ann Weaver, a young established artist and a teacher at the School of Art, who introduced him to a broader perspective and encouraged him to purchase new works to bolster his collection. Since then, the permanent collection has continued to grow, now encompassing approximately 7,000 objects over five curatorial departments.

Key to Norton’s interests was the American collection, which included contemporary artists of his time as well as those who played a part in the history of American art: George Bellows, Charles Denuth, Edward Hopper, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and sculptors Gaston Lachaise, Theodore Roszak, and William Zorach. After Norton’s death in 1953, new purchases continued to be made and, in 2005, a gift of 19 paintings from Elsie and Marvin Dekelboum was added to the American collection.

The Nortons were also much enamored of ancient Chinese art. They acquired 125 outstanding works of ancient jade and bronze, imperial jade, and hardstone carvings from the early Qing dynasty through to its later periods, as well as a 3,200-year-old bronze casting of a ritual wine-pouring vessel. Subsequent gifts have brought the Chinese collection to 600 objects, including paintings and furniture.

The European collection covers major art movements from the Renaissance through impressionism and modernism. The Delacort Gift, comprising 66 paintings and sculptures by Dutch and Flemish masters and works from the Barbizon and impressionist movements, was presented to the museum in 2008. Today, the European collection boasts works by some of the greatest artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, among them Claude Monet, Paul Gaugin, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Chaim Soutine, many of which are occasionally lent to major museum exhibitions around the globe.

In recent years, the contemporary art and photography collections have amassed a broad variety of international works, through individual gifts and through funds from the museum’s Contemporary and Modern Art Council. In 1995, Barbara and Melvin Nessel donated 70 pieces in a variety of media. In 2002, Catherine and Gilbert Brownstone gifted 50 works focusing on minimalism. And, most recently, Judie and Howard Ganek have promised 125 works by contemporary artists not presently represented in the museum’s holdings—a gift the Norton says will be “transformative.” (For a peek at the Ganeks’ collection featured in our Fall 2018 issue, visit palmbeachculture.com/magazine).

And Beyond…

A host of special exhibitions are being mounted to celebrate the Norton’s opening. Visitors will have a first look at an exceptional group of sixteenth-century paintings depicting the Nanjing Lantern Festival, which concludes celebrations for the Chinese New Year. The six recently acquired works were extensively conserved through the generosity of John and Heidi Niblack. “As a student and collector of Chinese art, it has been a privilege to have contributed to the preservation and conservation of such a rare treasure that will reside in the museum’s permanent Chinese collection,” says John Niblack, vice chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.

art&culture Winter 2019 The New Norton

The Norton will also celebrate the exceptional collectors residing in South Florida, says Brutvan, who reveals that she is currently organizing two site-specific installations inspired by the new building as well as the next installment of Recognition of Art by Women.

Of course, education is essential to the museum’s mission. The William Randolph Hearst Education Center provides two new classrooms and a student gallery. “Thanks to the support of the Hearst Foundation and others, new programs will be added including an Arts Leader Speaker Series, featuring renowned artists and other leading figures,” says Curator of Education Glenn Tomlinson. A Live at the Norton concert series will offer performances for families, while school groups will be able to take part in post-exhibit art classes. For adults, visiting scholars and artists will lead seminar sessions and workshops. Other highlights, adds Tomlinson, include a Summer Teacher’s Institute, more opportunities for teens to engage with the museum, and new day-long festivals.

“The building will become an inspirational and educational gathering space for the community, as well as a tourist destination and an institution that serious art collectors would view as a future home for their collections,” concludes Alswang, who, having nurtured the renovation project to its successful conclusion, will pass the baton to a new director when she retires in March.

Elliot Bostwick Davis, after 18 years spearheading all aspects of one of the world’s premier collections at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, will assume the position of executive director and CEO and lead the Norton into its next chapter.

For a full list of exhibitions, opening festivities, and new hours and admission prices, visit norton.org.