In the past, museums were carved out of palaces or erected to house collections secured by conquest, nationalization, gift, or purchase. Today an increasing number of museums are being built as speculative investments designed to attract two often incompatible currencies: collections and crowds.
On the collections front, the Miami Art Museum is wagering that a freestanding 125,000 sq. ft. building will convert the former Kunsthalle into a magnet for donations. With only 500 works of art acquired since it 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 and Marty Margulies, who have created private museums with impressive strength and depth.
Such gambles on the future have few guarantees, as Bellevue, Washington discovered. Steven Holl’s malleable Bellevue Art Museum building opened with fanfare in January of 2001, only to close in 2003, the victim of a spongy mission, which turned off both visitors and prospective art donors. It pressed the ‘restart’ button last June as a craft museum, and time will tell its fortunes. But 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, as with the collection of Virginia and Bagley Wright in Seattle, 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 announced conversion of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice into a showcase for the collection of Francois Pinault. The Los Angeles County Museum is providing a pavilion for the private and foundation 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. In US museums, an estimated 80-90% 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 a competing justification for expansion enjoys the upper hand today. For those museums that privilege their potential role as a destination above their traditional role as an educational institution, the focus on blockbusters to draw crowds is having an unsalutary effect on their potential as collection magnets. 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 end up building their own facilities in the first place. Sprawling entertainment spaces and concessions often come at the cost of features and departments 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.
It was over a hundred years into its existence before the Metropolitan Museum of Art devised major special exhibition spaces. So as to keep up with the arrivistes, large museums with already 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 bears comparison with inventory lacking room on the sales floor. 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 watercolors, 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.
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 insure that their expanded facilities make room both for the commercial and exhibition offer and for adequate collections support space and budgets to attract gifts. And major encyclopedic museums adding to already massive physical plants would do well to plan for a future in which diminished revenue will compel tough choices—one hopes leaving 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 demonizing 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.