Art museum ‘rearms’ during its renovation

The exhibit opened Sunday in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND (AP) — A special exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where permanent collections have been closed to the public during renovation, gives visitors a dazzling look at ornate armor and weapons from the European Renaissance.

The exhibit, which opened Sunday, “Arms and Armor from Imperial Austria,” will also remind visitors of the museum’s best-loved exhibit, the soaring, tapestry-lined Armor Court display anchored by a knight in armor, sitting rock-solid on his horse.

Museum officials hope the special exhibit will rekindle memories for museum fans and get them ready to return when the Armor Court and about one dozen other renovated permanent galleries reopen June 29 following a three-year shutdown.

“It will provide a wonderful thematic connection,” museum director Timothy Rub predicted during a media preview of the show that continues through June 1.

“It’s a nice way to segue to the reopening of the Armor Court,” said Stephen Fliegel, curator of Medieval art at the museum.

The special exhibit loaned by the Habsburg-era Landeszeughaus regional armory in Graz, Austria, includes nearly 300 items. The armory is one of the oldest and best-preserved with 30,000 pieces, enough to equip an army of 5,000.

In addition to familiar armor suits and weapons that knights used in battle — some extravagantly ornamented — the exhibit includes period paintings that put the Renaissance armory in Graz into the context of the Holy Roman Empire battling advancing Ottoman Turks.

Jeffrey Forgeng, curator at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass., said visitors are in for a treat.

“Graz is really one of the single most important collections in the world,” he said. “It’s a tremendous privilege for people in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. to be able to see a glimpse of what was happening — more than just a glimpse, a substantial exhibition of materials that are part of that major European story from the 1500s to 1600s.”

The special exhibit also will be a farewell event, with the area closing in June for renovation and then giving way to another special exhibit area that opens Oct. 19 with a crowd pleaser, “Artistic Luxury: Faberge, Tiffany, Lalique.”

The gallery openings and closings are part of a $258 million, six-year project to add exhibit space, offices and parking and update a sometimes confusing gallery grid into more visitor-friendly lines.

Fliegel said that while the museum’s Armor Court has reflected a conservative approach with its high-hung tapestries, visitors to the special exhibit would see a different tactic, taking them through the history of armor warfare to a climatic scene of 12 faceless knights arrayed for battle, their metal-tipped spears angled for attack.

Dan Whitely, who teaches art at nearby Shaker Heights High School, said his students benefited from Armor Court visits when they got explanations of how everything worked — sometimes up to 200 unique metal pieces for a full armor suit.

“When someone can explain those things to you and point out certain art distinctions and style and techniques and design elements, that’s great to see and hear,” Whitely said.

The museum is working to reconnect with visitors who may have gotten out of the habit of going to the museum on a weekend afternoon. Rub recently mailed a letter offering discounted memberships and highlighted the armor and Faberge exhibits.

Sometimes art patrons will go elsewhere to fill their interests. The Butler Institute of American Art has seen its Cleveland-area visitors double in the past two years, based on bus trips and gift shop business, according to the Youngstown museum 60 miles away.

Adult admission to the special armor exhibit is $15. The regular collections historically have been free at the financially well-endowed museum.