Museum piece

Inside the Crocker Art Museum’s multimillion-dollar makeover

Crocker Art Museum director Lial Jones leads the author on a hard-hat tour of the museum’s 125,000-square-foot expansion.

Crocker Art Museum director Lial Jones leads the author on a hard-hat tour of the museum’s 125,000-square-foot expansion.

Photo By Mike Iredale

For more information on the Crocker Art Museum, including how to contribute to the new expansion, please go to

After 125 years, the Crocker Art Museum is finally getting a loading dock. It’s the only museum of its size or stature in the country that doesn’t have one. Lial Jones, the museum director, volunteers that it’s a very serious drag to uncrate paintings and lug them up the front steps into the Victorian Italianate building at the end of O Street.

But those days end next year.

In fact, next year the Crocker get lots of new stuff besides just a loading dock, thanks to a $100 million, 125,000-square-foot addition that will triple the museum’s size and exponentially expand its role in the community.

Visitors will finally get to see a goodly chunk of the museum’s unparalleled collection of California art and more of its ceramics, one of the largest collections in the country. By the end of next year, Sacramento will be able to showcase the same kinds of big-deal national traveling exhibits that grace the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

“Our highway runs both directions—it doesn’t just run to San Francisco,” said Muriel Johnson, head of the California Arts Council, former Sacramento County supervisor and, with her husband, Ernest, a $100,000-plus contributor to the new museum. “I’ll bet you when we have the same kind of hanging space for special exhibits that the de Young does, traffic is going to increase coming our way.”

So far, $90 million of the project’s $100 million price tag has been raised, the bulk from private donors. In the $10 million-or-more club are Mort and Marcy Friedman and the Joyce and Jim Teel Family Foundation. The city is in for $12 million, the state $4 million and the county $2.5 million.

The expansion is a very big deal in more ways than one.

Physically, for sure, although the scope of the project doesn’t really hit home until taking a hard-hat tour with Jones. While the new building looks formidable viewed from the mansion’s windows, inside its steel skeleton is where the true massiveness is revealed.

The first-floor reception area alone, facing the new courtyard between the buildings, seats 1,200—the museum’s “living room,” Jones calls it. The built-in auditorium seats another 400.

Window on the future: Outside the old Crocker, the new Crocker takes shape. The new structure will display art on the second floor, where it will be protected from potential flooding.

Photo By Mike Iredale

“It’s going to be an iconic place people will use not only as a museum but as a meeting place, a gathering place,” said Sacramento City Councilman Rob Fong. “It’s going to be a real epicenter for some very good artistic discussions and expressions.”

The expansion is a big deal culturally and economically.

“This project is not only a major asset to the families of Sacramento who will enjoy it,” said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. “It will attract more tourists and visitors to our area, which certainly contributes to our economy. The arts community is an important part of our quality of life in Sacramento, and the new Crocker Art Museum will be a great contribution to that quality of life.”

The museum hasn’t done an economic impact analysis of what its bigger and better self will contribute to the region. But, nationally, bigger museums mean bigger bucks. A calculator created by Americans for the Arts shows that by spending $100 million, the expansion could create 2,990 jobs, increase local revenue by $35.7 million and state revenue by $44.2 million.

“If experience is any guide, renovations and expansions like this are really positives,” said Dewey Blanton, media relations director for the American Association of Museums. “It’s a win-win situation.” He also noted that on the project proposal list submitted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors for federal stimulus money, museums were prominent in the shovel-ready category.

When Jones was hired in 2000, the expansion was just a gleam in the eye of the museum board of directors. Now the new building is seven or eight months away from completion, with a grand opening planned for next fall.

“Museums and hospitals are the most complex structures in America,” Jones says, pointing out the double walls required to accommodate the precise temperature and humidity controls. The inner walls are 2 feet thick.

It’s the temperature and humidity controls that have pushed the opening to next fall. The temperature can’t change more than 3 degrees over a 30-day period. Humidity can’t vary more than 1 percent over 30 days. Ensuring that accuracy can take months.

Designed from the inside out, hallways in the new building are built to allow an 8-foot cube to be moved through them.

“It’s put together like a ship, no wasted space,” Jones says.

Another plus is the Crocker now can find out exactly what’s in its permanent collection. No one knows for sure, since there isn’t room in the current museum to store much of anything. Today, the Crocker has room to display only 4 percent of its ceramics, Asian, European and California art collections. Next year, that climbs to between 15 percent and 20 percent. The expansion was designed to create enough storage on the second floor—machinery and artwork are all located out of a flood’s reach—to house the entire collection.

Photo By Mike Iredale

“It’s the first time since the Crocker opened that every major area of the collection will have galleries devoted to it,” Jones said.

It’s also the first time the museum can spotlight its unique treasure of some 1,400 master drawings. When Edwin and Margaret Crocker took their family on a grand tour of Europe from 1869 to 1871, master drawings—sort of an artist’s rough draft before committing brush to canvas—were considered as significant, if not more so, than paintings because they showed the “hand of the artist,” Jones explains, adding that “more of the drawings have been seen in Europe than in Sacramento.” Now the master drawings, which are extremely sensitive to light, will have its own specially lit room on the second floor.

Enthusiasm about the project has created a problem of sorts. The extra space is already filling up, since the expansion inspired several donors to give their collections to the Crocker, adding upwards of 3,000 new pieces to the museum.

There will also be rejoicing among the Crocker’s docents, security guards and staff. They’ll now have offices. The current gallery is designed for one staff person. The museum’s staff, not counting volunteers, is 48. “Literally, there are staff that work out of boxes and just put them down on empty desk space,” Jones says.

The expansion allows the Crocker to play a bigger role in local arts, from studios in the basement of the old building for schoolchildren to a room on the second floor of the new building to focus on emerging and mid-career California artists.

Blanton says Crocker’s extreme makeover is the exception nationally—most museums are belt-tightening or postponing capital improvements because of the grim economy.

But Jones and the museum’s supporters say it’s worth every penny.

“In a lot of ways, we’re the symbol of the Sacramento we want Sacramento to be,” Jones says. “People will visit from around the world and think Sacramento is a great place, a world-class city.”