Archive
February 2006

Comment: New US museums pit donors against the public

An increasing number of museums are being built as speculative investments designed to attract incompatible currencies—collections and crowds

Steven Holl’s Bellevue Art Museum building opened in 2001, only to close in 2003—the victim of a spongy mission, inflated projections of earned income, and no persuasive collection-building strategy, turning off both visitors and prospective donors

In the past, museums were built on the collections of princes, aristocrats and great industrialists secured by conquest, nationalisation, gift or purchase. Today an increasing number of museums are being built as speculative investments designed to attract often incompatible currencies: collections and crowds.

The Miami Art Museum, for example, is wagering that a free-standing 125,000 sq. ft building will convert its former temporary exhibition space into a magnet for donations (see p.12). With only 500 works of art acquired since the museum began collecting nine years ago, the new facility is doubtless being conceived in large part to elicit the civic-minded participation of Miami’s many self-reliant mega-collectors, including the Rubell family, who have created private museums with impressive strength and depth.

Such gambles have few guarantees, as Bellevue, Washington, revealed. Steven Holl’s malleable Bellevue Art Museum building opened with fanfare in January 2001, only to close in 2003, the victim of a spongy mission (“See, Explore, Make Art”), inflated projections of earned income from a museum school, and no persuasive collection-building strategy, turning off both visitors and prospective donors. It pressed the “restart” button last June as a craft and design museum, and time will tell its fortunes. Meanwhile, from Qatar to West Kowloon, Singapore, Beijing and Rome’s contemporary art museum known as MaXXI, designed by Zaha Hadid, new institutions are being designed or built to house collections that often have yet to be identified, let alone acquired.

The trend is understandable. Museums have recently seen major private collections opened to the public in private museums: Emily Pulitzer’s collection in St Louis in a building by Tadao Ando, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas by Renzo Piano, Charles Saatchi’s spaces in London, and the planned conversion of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice into a showcase for the collection of François Pinault. The Los Angeles County Museum is providing a pavilion for the holdings of superstar collector Eli Broad, betting that his gift of construction funds will lead to a gift of the art.

Without new facilities, it is now reasoned, public museums will see influential collectors turn to other emptier museums or build a space of their own

Without new facilities, it is now reasoned, public museums will see influential collectors turn to other emptier museums or build a space of their own. In US museums, an estimated 80% to 90% of art acquisitions are gifts and bequests from collectors, and since a robust art market continues to push museums to the margins, it is obligatory to prepare spaces for possible donations.

But there are competing reasons for expansion. For those museums putting more emphasis on creating a “destination” than on the traditional role of educational institution, the focus on blockbusters to draw crowds is having an unsalutary effect on their potential to attract donations.

Serious collectors—the people who commit significant time, imagination and resources to support living artists or to delve deeply into a chapter in art history—value professional museum practices above crowds, which is why many of them build their own facilities in the first place. Sprawling entertainment spaces and concessions often come at the cost of features that top-flight collectors know are essential for the long haul: conservation laboratories with research capacity, state-of-the-art storage facilities, expandable permanent collection galleries, authoritative libraries and archives, classrooms and auditoria, art handling space, and adequate travel and research budgets for staff.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was more than 100 years old before it devised major special exhibition spaces. To keep up with the arrivistes, large museums with prestigious collections have felt increasing pressure to add commercially-oriented or special exhibition galleries, as at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and London’s National Gallery.

Many seemingly elective additions to museums with enviable collections are publicly justified by the “only 5% on view” mantra, as if the proportion of the permanent collection on display can be compared with stock in store on a ship. Yet prints, drawings, and photographs often account for the majority of museum holdings, and cannot be on view for extended periods of time. For these and other fragile works, including watercolours, textiles, films, videos, and mixed-media contemporary art, exposure to any kind of light or to fluctuating humidity hastens their deterioration. The unchecked growth of cavernous spaces in leading museums out of a fear of standing still or losing out may pose problems down the road, should energy costs continue to rise and admissions income begin to shrink.

The unchecked growth of cavernous spaces in leading museums out of a fear of standing still or losing out may pose problems down the road, should energy costs continue to rise and admissions income begin to shrink

This potential contradiction in planning expansions can be resolved if directors and boards put their obligations as collection- and crowd-magnets in proper balance. Museums with smaller collections should ensure that their expanded facilities make room both for commercial and exhibition space, and for adequate collections support space and budgets to attract gifts. Major encyclopaedic museums would do well to plan for a future in which diminished revenue will compel tough choices—hopefully placing their priceless collections ahead of entertainment-focused amenities at budget time.

A footnote. Caveats notwithstanding, there is nothing to be gained in these freshly cost-conscious times from demonising the creativity manifest in “signature architecture”. The extra expense of unconventional construction methods may well be a worthwhile investment as museums expand. If responsibly planned and managed, art museums can and should provide a memorable public space to champion visual ingenuity—of both artists and architects.

• The writer is a principal with AEA Consulting of New York and London