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Sneak peek: Inside the Norton Museum of Art's $100 million upgrade in West Palm Beach

The scene is electric with construction noise at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, as hard-hat workers race to finish a $100 million facelift for an aging museum with poor acoustics.

On a recent Friday, that hum of progress seems loudest at the towering new entrance plaza facing South Dixie Highway. Standing under the Norton’s new 43-foot-tall canopy, a polished aluminum panel gleaming in the midday sun, museum project director John Backman eyes a fleet of workers paving the plaza’s reflecting pool.

“You get numb to it after a while, but wow, it’s almost done,” Backman says.

For nearly three years, Backman has steered a dramatic makeover of the 77-year-old Norton with a world-class architect. On Feb. 9, the Norton Museum plans to re-open to the public with major upgrades, adding 13,300 square feet of new gallery space, along with a great hall and coffee bar, an education center with classrooms, a restaurant and a 210-seat auditorium. With its massive private collection of blue-chip artworks, the Norton completes South Florida’s contemporary-art trinity, along with the Perez Art Museum Miami and NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

As Art Basel Miami Beach brings spectacle to South Florida this week, big-ticket art collectors in town have toured these museums, and have gotten early previews of the unfinished Norton.

Behind the project is an architectural heavyweight, Lord Norman Foster, whose firm Foster and Partners was responsible for redesigning Berlin’s iconic Reichstag Building, London’s arching Wembley Stadium and New York’s soaring Hearst Tower. Foster is the kind of prestigious architect who draws big-ticket donors, but his sweeping redesign of the Norton will attract museumgoers from Fort Lauderdale, Miami and beyond, says Hope Alswang, the Norton’s executive director.

“It’s more art for more people in the most beautiful building you can imagine. Can’t do better than that,” says Alswang, who will retire March 1 after nine years at the museum. “The architecture should be as awe-inspiring as the art inside, and it gives us so much clout. The museum is going to create a huge tourism boon. I mean, I can call five donors right now and they’ll tell me they’re choosing Palm Beach because of the new Norton.”

As the Norton enters the homestretch of its overhaul, gifts have poured in. In August, West Palm Beach hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin donated $20 million to the project. In September, part-time Palm Beach donors Howard and Julie Ganek gave 100-plus new artworks, including names such as Kara Walker and Ed Ruscha, Damien Hirst and Anselm Keifer. Meanwhile, real estate projects have sprouted up nearby over the past year: luxury condo the Bristol (0.5 miles away), the Canopy Hotel (0.7 miles) and the mixed-use waterfront project Flagler Banyan Square (1 mile). For Alswang, the Norton will be a catalyst for more homes and retail along South Dixie Highway.

“South Dixie already has this reputation as being a kind of antiques row. But if you talk to any real-estate investors, they’ll tell you the Norton has created excitement on the street,” Alswang says.

Raphael Clemente, executive director of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority, says the Norton’s eye-popping redesign has the potential to lure “big economic players.”

“Incredible cultural amenities like the Norton, with an architect that significant, it’s a huge boost to economic development,” Clemente says. “When investors see the Norton taking shape, they feel confident about the cultural clout of West Palm Beach. Then you’ll see more people start including West Palm Beach in their travel plans because culture is a massive draw here.”

Reached by phone at a Miami event during Art Basel week, NSU Art Museum director Bonnie Clearwater says she hasn’t stopped hearing about the Norton from international art collectors. It may be 60 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, but Clearwater’s museum would immediately benefit from the Norton’s world-class redesign, she says.

“The idea of bringing in an important, world-renowned architect is part of our museum’s branding, too,” Clearwater says, referring to the late architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, who designed the NSU Art Museum building in 1986. “A lot of collectors and tourists flying into Palm Beach land in Fort Lauderdale first because of our international airport, and that benefits us because they stop at our museum. Artists want to show in world-class spaces. They like the proportions.”

To transform the Norton, Foster and Partners architect Michael Wurzel and his team ripped up the carpeting in the museum’s 1941 east wing, exposing the gallery’s original oak hardwood. To the Norton’s big West Wing expansion, Wurzel added skylights and wide windows to “harvest the light from the setting sun of South Florida,” he says. To the Norton’s outdoor space, Wurzel installed a new sculpture garden — it frames a 9,000-square-foot event lawn — drawing inspiration from gardens at nearby Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, Palm Beach’s Society of the Four Arts and several museums he visited in Denmark and Sweden.

Wurzel says one of the biggest hurdles during construction was protecting the Norton’s 80-year-old neighbor, a stately banyan tree, whose many arms were pruned to accommodate the new West Wing.

“The idea was to let the Norton feel as Floridian as possible,” Wurzel says. “Sunlight is a great asset, and we kept this stucco-terrazzo design on the inside that brings the museum back to its Art Deco, South Florida roots.”

Among his favorite new additions is a four-ton sculpture in the Norton’s entrance plaza, the 19-foot-tall centerpiece of the new reflecting pool. The piece, “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X,” from Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, depicts a wheel-shaped typewriter eraser, an obsolete piece of technology. Wurzel calls it “perfect symbolism” for the Norton: embrace the future, preserve the past.

“The technology comes from the Art Deco and Pop-art eras, but it’s also a significant piece of art,” Wurzel says. “Before, you couldn’t distinguish the Norton from other iconic buildings. Now we’re saying, ‘Look at this ambition. Come on in.’ ”

The Norton Museum is also plotting a day of programming for its Feb. 9 re-opening, along with the debut of eight new exhibits. They include “RAW: Nina Chanel Abney,” a solo exhibit by the New York-based artist, who tackles racial prejudice, violence and misogyny in her collection of politically minded paintings; and “Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography,” which revisits William Henry Fox Talbot’s 19th century photogenic drawings and Man Ray’s surrealistic rayograms. Other shows: “Good Fortune to All,” “Modern Spontaneity: Ralph Norton’s Watercolors,” “Spotlight: Ralston Crawford Across Media,” “Going Public: Florida Collectors Celebrate the Norton,” “Good Fortune to All: A Chinese Lantern Festival in 16th Century Nanjing” and “WHO? A Brief History of Photography through Portraiture.”

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