US museums spent $5bn to expand as economy shrank

Glitzy buildings mean more visitors—but they could conceal a financial timebomb

US museums spent nearly $5bn on expansions between 2007 and 2014, according to research by The Art Newspaper. During the worst US recession since the Great Depression, $4.95bn was spent or pledged by 26 museums on projects such as the $305m Snøhetta-designed extension of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which is due to open on 14 May. The US spent more on expansions than all of the other 37 countries we examined put together (for methodology, see below).

While shiny new constructions rise across the Middle East, Asia and South America, US museums seem to be in a state of constant growth. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is in the midst of its second expansion in a decade. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) began to plan its Peter Zumthor-designed project, which is due to open in 2023, a year before it completed a 45,000 sq. ft pavilion by Renzo Piano in 2010. The museum's director, Michael Govan, likens the process to “renovating a house with a growing family”; as soon as you finish one building, another needs to be fixed up.

Fuelling the boom Museum leaders say they must expand because they want to show art forms such as performance that do not fit neatly in white-cube galleries. They also need to adapt to museums’ evolving role as community hubs—and, most importantly, they need to build to show more of their rapidly growing collections and to attract new gifts. A donation of art worth $500m to Lacma by the Univision chief executive Jerry Perenchio, for example, depends on the completion of the Zumthor project. “If there isn’t room to show these works, you are hamstrung when you want to make the case to a private collector that a particular object would have a suitable home in the museum,” says Neal Benezra, SFMoMA’s director.

Extensions are also highly visible, quantifiable achievements for directors and board members. “Some people want to make museums because they feel they are proof of status,” says Piano, who has helped to design 25 major museum projects. “You realise this in the first five minutes of a conversation.” Charles Saumarez Smith, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London, says: “In both New York and Los Angeles, you feel that big institutions have developed as a matter of friendly competition.”

Patrons are also more likely to stump up for a splashy expansion than for a lower-profile renovation or acquisition. Govan says it would have cost $350m to repair Lacma’s “tragically ailing” buildings, which were designed by William Pereira in 1965. That sort of sum was “unraisable; nobody was going to put that kind of money into those buildings”. Instead, they will be demolished to make room for Zumthor’s $600m design. Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the New Yorker this year: “I can’t raise $100m for a single work of art, but what I can do is raise $600m to rebuild the Modern wing. That’s easier to do.”

Mary Ceruti, the director of New York’s SculptureCenter, which opened a $3.9m expansion in 2014, says capital projects are easier to fund as “people feel they are making a one-time investment”. But large organisations “are always in capital campaign mode”, she says.

US outspends the rest This attitude distinguishes the US from other countries, where museums rely more heavily on government support. We found that $8.9bn was spent on or committed to expansions by 75 museums worldwide between 2007 and 2014. In the UK, $1bn was spent by 15 institutions, with the average UK project costing $69m, compared with $190m in the US. “I wish we had the capacity to do $800m appeals,” Saumarez Smith says. The RA’s £50m expansion, which is due to open in 2018, is “stretching for us—it has to do with the tax system here and the availability of wealth”, he says.

Some ask whether expansions are always a wise investment. Adrian Ellis, a director of AEA Consulting in New York, says one-third of projects are a product of “a failure of imagination”. Bob Rennie, the Vancouver-based real-estate executive who is on the board of the Art Institute of Chicago, says some institutions in North America build extensions without thinking carefully about what will go inside them. “We want to make sure museums don’t become a dumping ground for speculative investments in the art market,” he says. “It costs a lot of money to store and insure these works.”

Indeed, the cost of an expansion does not end with the ribbon-cutting. “There is a tipping point where, instead of the building being a resource, it becomes something that requires resources,” Ceruti says. New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art predicted a rise in its operating budget from $33m to $49m after moving to its new Piano-designed building, according to the New York Times. SFMoMA’s operating budget will soar from $35m to $65m after it opens its new building. Benezra says the museum has more than tripled its endowment as part of a $610m fundraising campaign to help cover the increase.

Some say that the right project is worth the money. The writer Tyler Green has praised the Islamic art wings built between 2007 and 2014 by museums including the Met in New York and the Louvre in Paris. “When you add galleries to better show people how today happened, that is a good way to fulfil your mission to better inform your public about the world,” he says.

After a period of marathon construction, some believe that we are entering a new chapter of relative restraint. “Curators have revolted a bit and started to claw back parts of spaces that are better for exhibition-making,” says Tom Eccles, the director of the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies in upstate New York. “There is also a level of donor fatigue… the level of justification [to build] today would have to be higher than it was five years ago.”

The stardust factor Want a famous architect for your museum’s new wing? It will cost you. Projects designed by “starchitects” cost 52% more per square foot than those built by less famous names, according to our analysis of 50 building projects worldwide that were completed between 2007 and 2014. Starchitect-designed extensions cost an average of $2,458 per sq. ft compared with $1,617 per sq. ft for projects by 31 lesser-known firms. But name recognition does have its benefits. Attendance rose 97%, on average, in the years after museums opened starchitect-designed projects; attendance at all other expanded museums rose by 46%. Ten architects had enough name recognition and high-profile commissions to qualify as stars: the late Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Foster + Partners, Renzo Piano, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, David Chipperfield, Steven Holl and Rafael Viñoly. Piano was the most popular choice, with five museum commissions completed during this period.

The methodology We examined building projects that were initiated or completed between 2007 and 2014 at 85 museums worldwide. To determine the cost, we converted the project’s construction budget (where it was available) from the local currency into dollars, using the exchange rate in the year that the expansion began, and then adjusted for inflation to 2014 dollars. We considered only building projects that added square footage to the museum’s existing footprint. The museums were identified from a list of nearly 500 institutions in 38 countries that submitted data to our annual attendance figures survey.

Data analysis by Nilkanth Patel 

To read about how expansions affect museum visitor figures, see our exclusive annual attendance report

To read about alternatives to museum expansions, see our comment story by Adrian Ellis