With the Detroit Institute of Art foundering, and sister institutions barely afloat, the institution of the public art museum as community center appears endangered, eclipsed by commercial art fairs on the one hand and somewhat generic art museums, showing the art world’s usual big-name suspects, on the other. Smaller museums target specific audiences, sometimes to the detriment of aesthetic quality, which is seen by some as old-fashioned and repressive; the resulting ostensibly populist, anti-elitist, participatory art often, frankly, confirms the misgivings of cultural historian Jacques Barzun (The Use and Abuse of Art, 1974) about the “momentary and inconsequential… educational experiment” replacing “the Beautiful, the Profound and the Moving.”

For serious art-museum fans in the Bay Area, however, there is good news. The Anderson Collection at Stanford University will open in a new 30,000-square-foot building in the fall of 2014. Last month, a handful of Bay Area cognoscenti got an inside view of the new building, and plans for the collection. The Anderson Collection originated when Harry and Margaret Anderson (aka Hunk and Moo) visited Paris in 1964, and were smitten by French Impressionism. At its height–before donations to SFMOMA and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco–it comprised some 1,400 objects from the postwar American period (the Andersons’ tastes having developed, partly due to their friendships with Art History Professor Albert Elsen and expressionist painter Nathan Oliveira, both Stanford teachers). The Andersons have long been generous in making loans for exhibitions; and have helped train over 30 art professionals through their art internship programs, including Neal Benezra of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. However, this gift of 121 paintings to the university–including works by Vija Celmins, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Robert Graham, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Ellsworth Kelly, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, David Park, Jackson Pollock, Martin Puryear, Susan Rothenberg, David Smith, Frank Stella, Clyfford Still, Donald Sultan, Wayne Thiebaud, Terry Winters and others–is truly monumental. At the 2012 groundbreaking ceremony, Provost John Etchemendy said, “It is almost impossible to describe the profound effect the gift of their remarkable collection will have on Stanford, on our students and on all who appreciate American art.” Professor Nancy Troy, chair of the Department of Art and Art History, concurred: “This is the beginning of a golden period for Stanford students and for the larger Bay Area community.”

The new building will make a welcoming and attractive home for the art and its fans. Designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects of New York City, who previously designed the Bing Concert Hall nearby and the William H. Neukom Building in the Law School, the Anderson Collection Building will strike a balance between innovative modern design and compatibility with neighboring university buildings. At two stories, it will be the same height as the adjacent Cantor Arts Center, and feature large picture-window views onto the Rotunda and Richard Serra’s 200-ton environmental sculpture, Sequence. With cantilevered second-floor galleries overhanging ground-level walkways, the new building will echo the Main Quadrangle’s Spanish Romanesque arcades, a few minutes’ walk away. The large, light-filled central gallery space will have movable walls beneath an undulating ceiling, providing maximum openness and flexibility. A sculpture garden, a conference room, a library, offices and storage space will make this addition to Stanford’s Arts District (comprising Anderson, Bing, Cantor and the new McMurtry Building for the Department of Art and Art History) inviting and user-friendly for students, scholars and visitors–a gemutlich gathering place that happens to house great art.

Director of the Anderson Collection Jason Linetzky, who has managed the Andersons’ private collection for years, notes that, “This collection represents key modern and contemporary movements, but at the same time, and just as importantly, it represents the collective choices and tastes of the family who built it.” It is thus likely to retain the intimate quality so manifest in the Andersons’ private residence, while serving as the centerpiece for the Stanford Arts Initiative, a comprehensive program emphasizing the visual arts in all undergraduate education. But that’s another story. For those of us who have long bemoaned the relatively low profile of the visual arts in a locale so abundantly blessed with creative talent and wealth (especially in these Silicon Valley boom times, offsetting their downside of artist evictions), these are extraordinarily hopeful developments.