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The year in museums: the building boom and the expanding canon

In an exclusive report in the April issue, The Art Newspaper reported that in the US alone close to $5bn had been spent on museum expansions between 2007 and 2014. Worldwide, we calculated an $8.9bn outlay by 75 museums in that period, which coincided with a devastating and prolonged global recession. 

That boom goes on: 2016 saw numerous landmark buildings open or re-open their doors. In the US, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) opened its rippling, gleaming white $305m extension, designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, after a three-year closure. It is now the largest museum of Modern art in the US, with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space. 

Meanwhile, the David Adjaye-designed National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution, opened next door to the Washington Monument, in September, at a cost of $540m. Arguably one of the best loved museums of the year, architecturally at least, was Marcel Breuer’s 1966 Whitney Museum building, now lovingly restored and occupied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the Met Breuer. As many observers noted, Breuer’s inverted ziggurat in concrete and granite was being cared for by its new tenants as if it were itself a work of art. 

While some commentators have wondered whether “donor fatigue” might halt the museum building boom, major expansions under way at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art suggest that the major museums at least seem likely to propel it into the 2020s.

In Europe, the key building opening was undoubtedly London’s Tate Modern Switch House, an 11-storey extension clad outside in brick and dominated by raw concrete within. Critics were universal in their praise for Herzog & de Meuron’s £260m creation. But they were more equivocal over the displays within, reflecting the expansion of the Tate’s collection into geographical areas such as Latin America and Africa, which were until recently largely neglected by museums of Modern art. 

The Tate is the global standard bearer for a process of rewriting the canon of art history that in 2016 feels more palpable than ever. In appointing Frances Morris, who was previously director of its collection of international art, as the director of Tate Modern, the museum is indicating that buying and showing art, not constructing buildings, will be its focus from now on. 

MoMA also sought to reinforce its aims to look beyond Europe and North America in telling the story of Modernism. “It is no longer acceptable not to cast your net wide and include the various ways in which Modernisms have flourished,” the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry, told The Art Newspaper in our November issue (for more on the expanding canons of Modernism, see Museums, p16).

Meanwhile, the rise of private museums goes on. Both the Broad in Los Angeles and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris have proved as popular as many major public museums. The Broad announced in September that it had had 820,000 visitors in its first year and the Vuitton foundation, which attracted 1.2 million visitors in its inaugural year, is pulling huge crowds for its Shchukin Collection show. 

But, as we revealed in June, the field of private museums is under scrutiny in the US, especially ones that are less public than the Broad. The Senate Finance Committee in the US sent a letter to 11 museums set up by collectors asking about their opening arrangements—some require advance reservations or open for just 20 hours a week—in response to concerns that they are exploiting generous tax breaks. 

The Guerrilla Girls, the artists and activists who have long held up a mirror to the museum world’s inequalities, told us in October that the rise of the private museum is “a little creepy… What kind of a story can be told by art that costs the most, and art that’s chosen by a handful of very homogeneous people? The history of art and the record of our culture should be much richer than that.”