When a museum expands, it does not mean that everything just gets a little bigger—trends in expansion reflect changing priorities. In the 1990s, expansions tended to focus on spaces for larger and more dramatically displayed temporary exhibitions and, in the contemporary field, for the installation of larger works of art, in line with artistic practice. Then the focus was on circulation and event space and on revenue-generating activities (catering and retail), segueing into new spaces for educational activities. Today there is an interesting trend toward spaces for performance and music programming in museums. This is partly driven by a blurring of boundaries in areas such as video and performance art, but also by a slightly unexpected development. Museums—from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to London’s National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Tate—have become significant music programmers for their cities, and in the case of the Guggenheim Museum, dance programmers.
Occasionally—probably too rarely—the less easily fundable back-of-house needs for improved conservation or storage get their turn. The British Museum’s World Conservation and Exhibition Centre and The Clark Art Institute’s Conservation Center come to mind. There are, nevertheless, a surprising number of museums where the conditions and environmental quality of the front of house and back of house remain in such stark contrast that the basic responsibility of stewardship appear to have slipped down if not off the institutional agenda.
Over the last quarter of a century the wave of investment in new museums, museum extensions and in cultural infrastructure across the board has been one of the defining and initially surprising features of the civic landscape. Urban regeneration, place making, the growth of cultural tourism, the changing expectations of museum visitors, vanity and the reappearance of conspicuous philanthropy are the now well understood drivers. Equally well understood, too, are the results, both positive and negative.
On the positive side, museums are potentially much better able to meet the needs of their various, increasingly complex publics, to display collections to advantage, and service increased attendance. And expansions have provided a context for powerfully expressive architecture, enabled by advances in structural engineering, materials science and computer-aided modelling. For a while, extensions were a context for exuberant branding. Fashions are changing now and context and function are reasserting themselves. (The President of China has recently deprecated architectural excess, so this quieting down appears to be a global trend.)
How to avoid catastrophe On the negative side, the shoals and whirlpools of capital projects still suck careless museums in. The most common causes of a dunking—and sometimes a drowning—are neglect of the invariably adverse impact that an expansion has on the relationship of income to expenditure, on cash flow, and on the strength of the balance sheet. This in turn means the potential of the expansion goes unrealised because the resources are not available to programme it effectively. The ratio of fixed to variable costs—of overhead to programming—is adversely affected, and the result is attenuated and risk-averse exhibitions and events. This outcome is, of course, the opposite of the expansive promises on which the capital funding was raised in the first place. Anyone heading up an extension who is unaware of this tendency, and the need to take explicit steps to counter it, is effectively asleep at the wheel of their institution.
The second common danger is the absence of a compelling mission-related rationale. Buildings are, axiomatically, a means to an end; and, unless that end—what the building actually needs to do or to enable—is clear and worked through in the guiding minds of the institution (and therefore clearly articulated in the brief to the designer), all the architectural brilliance in the world will not make it work. This is what is at the heart of the trope about the best design coming from the relationship between strong client and strong architect. It is not so much about a productive battle of wills as it is about the architect having a fighting chance of a clear understanding of the problems that are to be solved by the application of her or his spatial intelligence and imagination.
Again, this insight is less than startling, although there are still high-profile cultural buildings coming out of the ground today that have not benefited from its application. In fact, generally, the higher the profile of the project, the more difficult it is to clarify the functional brief (UK) or program (US), because the more likely considerations of urban form are likely to trump the muffled, anxious voices of curators and chief operating officers. High-profile cultural projects that succeed functionally are a tribute to the tenacity and perspicacity of the home team.
Do you really need to get bigger? Avoiding a catastrophe, however, sets the bar of ambition a little low. The higher bar concerns how to address the biggest conundrum that most art museums face: how to engage authentically with a broad enough audience to generate the level of support required to sustain the exhibitions, events, research, acquisitions and commissions that underpin a healthy institution and a healthy relationship with its chosen communities and audiences.
A small and privileged cohort of the most eminent museums are in a virtuous circle of locational prominence, deep collections and strong programming budgets that in turn generate visitors, donors and media attention that then sustain the programming required to build further support. Their physical expansion plans represent an integral aspect of this logic. Surprisingly few museums are in that privileged position, however, and expansions, undertaken outside this privileged context, can distract attention from institutions’ central dilemma. For many, instead of fixing a functional shortcoming, the expansion constitutes an effort to kickstart this cycle, not to accommodate it. So perhaps the most important question that museum boards, directors and stakeholders outside of the privileged cohort of the “first division” should ask themselves is whether, from the perspective of mission fulfillment, a building project constitutes the most compelling priority.
The key question for museums Some of the obvious alternatives for the limited time, money, executive focus and emotional reserves at a museum’s disposal are programmatic innovation that increases the porosity of the museum through virtual expansion; more compelling activation of public spaces; and engagement beyond the building. Similarly, the core functions of stewardship, scholarship and collection development can get neglected by physical expansions, even where they are foregrounded in annual reports. Perhaps the threshold test for a board considering a capital project should be: is this institution seen as such a compelling and valued asset by the identifiable communities it serves that it cannot meet the demands placed upon it without further physical expansion? If not, how can it first achieve this standing?
Of course, the retort to this line of argument is that the money potentially available for a capital project is not fungible. You cannot redeploy it to other purposes as the funds are tied by donors to a building, and if you were to try to use them for something else, they would be withdrawn. There is some truth in this; but there is also truth in the proposition that a compelling case—one that offers both the comfort of viability and the joy of energetic mission fulfillment—generates the will to fund and that, with the exception of formally designated public sources, almost all funders will bend their rules in the face of the charismatically presented, strategically compelling and financially robust proposition.