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Something Old, Something New: Green investments pay off for the historic Toledo Museum of Art.

Category: Environmental Sustainability
Interior image of the museum's galleries with a candleabra chandelier in the foreground and an oil painting in the far distance through several doorways in view.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Museum magazine. A benefit of membership in AAM. 

While most new museum projects and additions incorporate energy-efficient strategies as part of the design, it is remarkable for a century-old building to be retrofitted to achieve similar results. So, when the Toledo Museum of Art’s 102-year-old main building went “off the grid” for the first time last year, it marked a milestone not only in the museum’s 20-year sustainability efforts but for historic museum architecture across the country.

Since May 2013, the museum has realized off-the-grid status multiple times, returning energy to the electrical grid and becoming a brief provider of energy in the process. Sound incredible? This is the story of a museum on a mission: to save energy and ultimately to save money, while never losing sight of the visitor experience and the safety of the objects in its care.

The Museum

The Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), a privately endowed, nonprofit institution, is open to the public free of charge six days a week and welcomes 375,000 visitors a year. Its comprehensive holdings include 30,000 works of ancient, medieval, American, European, and modern and contemporary art, as well as prints, drawings, photographs, decorative arts and one of the most important glass collections in the world.

Part of a historic district, TMA’s landmark 250,000-square-foot main building consists of 4.5 acres of floor space over two levels and features 45 galleries, 15 classroom studios, the 1,750-seat Peristyle concert hall, a 176-seat lecture hall, centers for families and visual literacy education, a cafe and a museum store.

The museum’s main neoclassical marble building was designed by Edward B. Green and Harry W. Wachter and opened in 1912, 11 years after the founding of the museum. Since then, four renovations and expansions have added to the museum’s footprint. The museum’s 36-acre campus includes the world-renowned Glass Pavilion, designed by SANAA, which opened in 2006; the Georgia and David K. Welles Sculpture Garden featuring 25 works of modern and contemporary sculpture; and the Frank Gehry-designed Center for the Visual Arts building, which houses the museum’s reference library and the University of Toledo’s art department and studios.

Among the museum’s current roster of exhibitions is “The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden” (on view through May n)–a highly anticipated collaboration with the Musee du Louvre, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Art Museum, Oregon (see page 13). The exhibition presents 100 works of art from the 17th to the 20th centuries related to the garden–many never shown outside of Paris. Recent exhibitions have included “Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints” and “Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art from the Hood Museum of Art.”

The museum’s mission to fully integrate art into daily life is reflected in its range of educational and programmatic offerings to visitors of all ages and its longstanding commitment to art education, most recently teaching visual literacy as a multilayered approach to making sense of our world.

Going Green

It all started back in 1992. Taking the long view, the museum embarked on a plan to reduce energy consumption over time in order to relieve the operating budget pressures typical of a nonprofit museum. The museum’s green initiatives have been spearheaded from the beginning by Carol Bintz, TMA’s chief operating officer, and Paul Bernard, the director of physical plant and capital projects, both of whom have been with the museum for more than 20 years.

The first order of business was to examine all of the building systems to determine what could reasonably be replaced and identify where improvement could be most effectively leveraged. For instance, old motors were replaced with high-efficiency versions, and incandescent lights were replaced with fluorescents. As solar technology progressed, Bernard and Bintz studied whether the museum’s geographic location and site lent themselves to solar power; the answer was decidedly yes. Among the sustainable energy practices that the museum concentrated on were solar, energy-efficient lighting, and microturbines and chillers. Through projects small and large, executed largely by museum staff, TMA invested in a series of energy alternatives while preserving the climate controls required for all art museums and enhancing the quality of the audience experience. The results were dramatic: as energy needs were significantly reduced, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost savings were realized–critical funds that could be funneled back into mission-centric exhibitions and programs.

“It takes a variety of ideas and a willingness to take risks to embrace and implement these new and innovative technologies,” says Bintz. “Our belief in this from the very beginning has paid off significantly, as our efforts have reduced the electrical usage in the main building by 79 percent from 1992 to 2012.”

“What prompted the initiatives was simple,” says Bernard. “We needed to reduce costs without compromising gallery conditions. It only took two months for some of the changes to start paying for themselves. We’ve achieved great savings while maintaining the highest standards for our collection and our visitors.”

On the Ground-And in The Air

Energy-efficient alternatives are woven throughout the entire museum and are evident from the first moments of any visit. One of the most recent additions is a new 360-kilowatt-hour solar canopy over the main parking lot. The museum had previously installed solar arrays on the roof of the main building of the museum. (Because of the museum’s location in a neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, the solar panels were mounted flat against the roof.)

Together the solar arrays on the museum roof and the parking lot account for one of the larger solar installations in the state of Ohio. On average they provide over half the energy needs for the entire main building.

“Give us a clear day in January at high noon and these panels can generate their full kilowatt capacity,” says Bernard. “But even when the panels aren’t operating at maximum capacity, combined with our other energy reduction tactics, there are days when we never have to go on the grid. For a 100-year-old building to have zero net electricity use from the power grid while occupied is pretty significant.”

Exterior lights on the terrace and in the sculpture garden have been upgraded to high-efficiency output, and though the number of lights has dramatically increased, the electrical demand has been reduced. When you walk in the front door of the main building, high-efficiency fluorescent and LED lights greet you in the cafe, offices, and restrooms. Think LED and you may not think museum-quality lighting. But as technology has improved, LED lights can now enhance viewing art. Bernard’s team has been on the cutting edge of testing preproduction LED lights in gallery and gathering spaces for some time, thanks to partnerships with lighting manufacturers.

New incandescent lighting in the Peristyle one of the most stunning concert halls in the country–and in the museum store–has also drawn attention from visitors and staff alike. Architectural details and the painted frieze of Greek citizens in the Peristyle are now more effectively illuminated with one 40-watt fluorescent fixture. And by doubling the amount of light, displays in the store increasingly capture shoppers’ attention, while cutting consumption.

Under the hood, the museum added four clean-energy microturbines to its sustainability arsenal in 2003–the first microturbine installation in the state. Not only do these combined heat and power units produce heat from hot water and burn natural gas to efficiently and cleanly generate electricity, they also recycle turbine exhaust to maintain the museum’s mandatory 70/50 temperature and humidity levels.

In May of 1992 the museum’s electric bill was $53,000. In May of 20l3, it was $5,000.

Last fall, for the first time, LED lights were installed throughout an entire gallery for the special exhibition “Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints.” The dazzling woodblock prints popped, and because the bulbs emit zero best or UV light, the works on paper were well protected while the museum saved energy.

Just as important, LED lights have a decade-long lifespan, minimizing replacement costs. “Multiply that by a thousand, and it’s obvious why the new lights are more efficient, from both the product cost and the labor standpoints,” says Bernard.

On the color rendering index-which gauges a bulb’s ability to mimic natural light and reflect true color-TMA’s LED lights currently score g6 on a scale of 100.

“Anyone can generate electricity;’ says Bernard. “It’s harder to generate power and reclaim the engine heat-but by design we’ve been able to do that, while at the same time reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent.”

The microturbines, which work like mini jet engines, generate energy on site-lowering the museum’s carbon footprint and offering a big advantage for the security and protection of the collection in case of a grid outage.

In 2012, the Glass Pavilion–home to TMA’s glass collection and glassmaking studios–also benefitted from new microturbines and natural gas chillers, with the heat from the glass hot shop redirected to warm the pavilion in the winter and microturbine waste from electricity generation used to heat and cool the building as needed. The museum plans to invest in additional microturbines in the future.

Alongside the microturbines, variable frequency drives (VFDs) power all of the museum’s fan operations at a lower-than-standard speed, which results in even more energy savings.

Running the Numbers

Adding it all up, the museum has reduced its electricity consumption by 79 percent since 1992 as a result of its solar installations, lighting upgrades and integration of microturbines, chillers, and VFDs. Bernard likes to share one concrete example of how energy conservation equals real savings: in May of 1992 the museum’s electric bill was $53,000; in May of 2013 it was $5,000. That monthly savings makes a significant difference in the museum’s operations budget and fiscal bottom line.

The return on investment of the microturbines and VFDs alone has been impressive: the microturbines ($150,000 each) paid for themselves over four years of electricity savings. The $4,000 price tag for the VFD equipment was recouped in two months of energy savings. The first in the state of Ohio, the museum’s net metering agreement with power company First Energy allows TMA to pay only for what it consumes and return surplus energy back to the grid.

“When we produce more power than we use, the meter goes the other way because we’re putting electricity back on the grid,” says Bernard. “We pay the net difference for what we use–and get credit for what we give back!”

Though the museum was unable to take advantage of energy efficiency tax credits due to its nonprofit status, over the years TMA has received numerous grants in support of its energy reduction goals. For example, the first two phases of the solar installations, in 2008 and 2010, were funded by the Ohio Department of Development, with the balance paid by the museum. Phase two was also paid for in part with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that were allocated through the Ohio Department of Development state energy plan program. In 2012, the solar canopy over the main parking lot was funded by private investors in a power purchase agreement. The microturbines were funded by a grant from the Ohio Department of Development and TMA capital funds.

Ancillary green strategies that TMA has introduced include electric vehicle charging stations in the main parking lot and an organic garden that provides produce for the museum’s cafe and in-house catering service.

“Our guiding principle through this journey has been to save money by saving energy,” said Bintz. “In doing so, the museum is able to continue to follow museum best practices for the collection, preserve jobs and be responsible environmental stewards, while passing on the savings to the exhibitions and programs that support our educational mission. It’s a powerful win-win.”

The process is ongoing as the museum continues to analyze and fine-tune its energy reduction methods and goals. An exemplar in the field and beyond, TMA’s sustainability practices serve as a model for other museums. Bernard and Bintz frequently receive queries from administrators and facility managers at institutions around the country seeking guidance on how to achieve similar results by incorporating new technologies.

“Just as this institution is an innovation leader in education and teaching the importance and relevance of visual literacy, in order to best serve our audiences and flourish for generations to come, we must be an innovator in the management of the beautiful facility we have inherited,” says Bintz. “It’s who we are–as a museum and as the cornerstone of art and culture in our community.”

Stephanie Miller, a 15-year museum veteran, is now an arts public relations, publications and strategy consultant with Blue Water Communications, with offices in Ohio and Florida.

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