The Hippo


May 28, 2020








The Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Arts Center. Kelly Sennott photo.

Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Art Center 

Where: Saint Anselm College, 100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester, 641-7470,
Exhibition hours and display: On view through May 13; gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., during scheduled exhibitions
Concert: Friday, April 22, at 7 p.m., featuring Saint Anselm College music performance faculty, free
Curator’s tour: Wednesday, April 27, at 12:30 p.m., Director Iain MacLellan and Assistant Curator Maggie Dimock will lead a guided viewing of the spring exhibition and introduce new acquisitions and discuss the evolution of the permanent collection, free

Blessing in disguise
Chapel Arts Center reopens after year-long renovation

By Kelly Sennott

 On Good Friday last spring, the ceiling at the entrance of the Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Arts Center collapsed — but gallery curators see now that it was blessing in disguise.

The accident at the Saint Anselm gallery happened in the middle of the night; nobody was there, so nobody was hurt. Damage came to neither artwork from the permanent collection hanging on the walls nor the ceiling mural, painted years ago by a Saint Anselm monk, Father Raphael Pfisterer, before the college built the Saint Anselm Abbey and transformed the chapel into an art center in 1967.
“There was a heavy plaster that was applied to the ceiling to supports that had just been nailed in 90 years ago. And it just pulled right out after years of winters,” said Maggie Dimock, assistant curator at the gallery. “At the time, we had works from our permanent collection on view, and aside from some frames that were a little bit worse for wear, which we’ve since replaced, really nothing else was damaged. But it did lead us to think, why did this happen, and what does it mean about the general safety and structure of the building itself?” 
The 400-piece collection is kept safe in a climate-controlled enclosed vault up where the choir loft used to be, but the vaulted ceiling murals had virtually no protection and were built at the same time as the portion that fell — and indeed, upon inspection it was clear there were areas of plaster beginning to separate from supports there as well. 
So, this past year, staff consulted with preservators and historic preservation architects and partnered with HL Turner Group to come up with a plan of attack while keeping upgrades in line with the building’s historic character. Workers installed new supports, brackets and fixtures to re-connect the plaster while  the collection was kept in a storage space and staff set up shop in the library.
A year later, the gallery reopened with a crowded public reception April 7. On view through May 13 is an exhibition highlighting works from the art center’s collection, including figural and landscape paintings, drawings and sculptures, plus recent acquisitions.
“Our aim in re-opening was to continue a project we had been working on last year, which was a year-long exhibition highlighting this permanent collection of artworks,” Dimock said. “We’d been in the middle of showing that last year when we had this accident. … We’ve been continuing to add to the collection, even in the last year we’ve been closed.”
One of those acquisitions is a miniscule print by Rembrandt, “The Presentation in the Temple with the Angel (1630),” which depicts a scene from the Gospel of Luke.
“Rembrandt is a really well-known printmaker as well as painter. He was one of the virtuosos as an etcher, basically. And you can just see, even though it’s so small, the level of detail in the little lines, the way he can just suggest this cavernous space in this temple,” Dimock said. 
Other new pieces include James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Limehouse (1878)” and a lithograph by Edouard Vuillard (1899).
Aesthetically, very little changed in the gallery. A new white rug coats the floors, while freestanding walls have been rebuilt and repainted in pastel colors. Lights still criss-cross in a grid above, and the ceiling art is exactly the same. The difference is, people are noticing it.
“The new paint, new flooring and new walls brightened up the room, and everybody’s looking at the ceiling. Of course, we did new lighting a few years ago, but now everybody seems to be paying attention,” said Father Iain MacLellan, the gallery’s director.
Another silver lining to the accident is the discovery and recovery of the building’s 1923 architectural plans for the original chapel drawn up by the firm Maginnis & Walsh, which MacLellan found in the monastery’s archive space and hung along the chapel’s back wall.
“We’d been looking for them. [MacLellan] had done some research and had this feeling this Boston firm, Maginnis & Walsh, which was really known for working with the arts and crafts style, specifically with Catholic institutions in the early 20th century — he had reason to believe they had done work for Saint Anselm but couldn’t find any proof,” Dimock said.
Dimock also conducted a lot of her own research the past year, touching on the chapel’s history — in its first days as an art center, it was also a music and theater space — and the artists who made it happen, including Pfisterer and his mentor Fr. Bonaventure, who founded The Studio of Christian Art, responsible for painting large-scale murals and paintings for Catholic churches across the country, including St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Manchester.
She and MacLellan said it’s good to be back. There’s a reverence when you walk in, with a difference in light, temperature, sound, even smell when you walk through gallery doors. Dimock uses the term gesamtkunstwerk to describe the space. 
“It means complete work of art,” she said. “My background is in art history — even more specifically, decorative arts and design in architecture. And this building, in terms of its era in when it was built, was interesting to me, especially the murals themselves. … I think a lot of galleries have that sense of wanting to create a certain atmosphere. But I do think we’re able to cultivate something really specific here.” 

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