If You Build It, Will They Come?
by Judith H. Dobrzynski
Many architecture critics have noted that the spiky peaks of the Denver Art Museum's bold new Daniel Libeskind-designed addition jut into the sky like the nearby Rocky Mountains. Other cultural observers, however, might see in the sharp points of the Frederic C. Hamilton building an altogether different metaphor-that of a museum sticking its chin out.
DAM spent $110 million to construct the wing, which opened last October, and talked of attracting 1 million visitors in its first year of operation. But not everyone is quite so optimistic. Marc Wilson, the outspoken longtime director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, which unveiled a Steven Holl-designed addition to its 1933 building last month, deems the goal "crazy."
Such doubts come as news to Lewis Sharp, the Denver museum's khaki-clad and somewhat rumpled director. Sitting for an interview on a spring day, Sharp pushes back from the table in his new conference room, narrows his eyes, and asks who's saying these horrible things. He admits that last winter's severe snowstorms pared around 40,000 from expected visitor rolls and, when pressed further, concedes that "revenue production in the first months is less than I wanted." But he insists the museum is on track to meet its more modest projection of 750,000 visitors in the first year, which prompts his press officer to break in and deny they ever really promised more. (The museum's corporate partners program brochure, which sits on a credenza just inches away, declares otherwise: "We anticipate more than 1 million visitors in its first year of operation.")
Denver isn't the only city that has pinned high cultural hopes on new construction. Atlanta has jumped on the same bandwagon. So have Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Raleigh, Seattle—and the list goes on to include smaller cities like Akron, Roanoke, Grand Rapids, Davenport, Mobile, and Salem, Mass. For the past decade, art museums across the United States have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand, often in splashy starchitect-designed "signature buildings," Guggenheim Bilbao wannabes that are expected to draw huge crowds—especially more tourists. "This is an unprecedented period in the history of art museums," says Dan Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, which opened its new 110,000-square-foot wing, designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, in 2003.
The boom has produced a wave of euphoria, not least among the donors who've made it possible. "When I saw the building, I was over the top with the outcome," says Denver oilman Frederic C. Hamilton, who put up $20 million for the DAM project. Similarly enthusiastic is John Wieland, whose name, along with that of his wife, Susan, adorns the largest of three new structures designed by Genoa-based architect Renzo Piano for the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta: "I'm ecstatic about the building," he declares.
But the splurge has raised a vexing question: Have museums created a virtuous circle, leading to greater patronage and a true golden age, or a vicious one, ending in empty galleries and gallons of red ink? "There've been so many museum expansions in the past 10 years that they can't all have the desired impact," says Russell Bowman, a Chicago-based art consultant. He should know. During his 17-year tenure as director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Bowman commissioned its soaring Santiago Calatrava wing, which opened in 2001. That $121 million project cost $25 million more than originally envisioned, doubled MAM's $6 million operating budget, and forced a couple of years of retrenchment. Bowman left his post in 2002; the museum's current strategic plan says starkly, "We remain underresourced."
The Denver museum, too, is now operating at a loss after decades with a balanced budget. In early April, Sharp announced layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.
Yet the pace of construction continues. "I'm on the Cincinnati Art Museum board, among others, and I don't know anyone who's not expanding," says Lois Rosenthal, who with her husband, Richard, donated the naming gift for Zaha Hadid's $34 million Contemporary Arts Center, which opened in Cincinnati in 2003. "It's pretty frightening. I don't know where all the money is that's going to pay for it."
Adrian Ellis, chief executive of AEA Consulting, a New York- and London-based firm that advises cultural institutions, agrees that there's "no tailing off" in expansions. But he sees the funding problem differently: There's too much, not too little. An overabundance of available money is driving the spending spree, says Ellis, and a lot of wealthy people are keen to have their names on wings, galleries, or walls of a museum designed by a world-famous architect. In Atlanta, for example, F. Terry Stent, the trustee who headed the capital campaign for the High's $109 million expansion, had no problem raising money. "We got so few noes it was amazing," he says. "People wanted to catch the train before it was gone." In Milwaukee, says trustee Donald Baumgarten, the museum actually added features to its growth plans because it reached its initial goal of $100 million so quickly.
Museums, in other words, are expanding because they can.
To be fair, many institutions have been forced to build because of space constraints. Others, like the old High, had structural issues. Its 1983 Richard Meier-designed home, which had one elevator that held 12 people and limited gallery space, couldn't handle big shows. Neither could Denver's original 1971 building, designed by Milanese modernist Gio Ponti. Collections have grown exponentially at too many museums to mention. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is in the midst of a multiphase expansion project, needed to reorganize its sprawling campus. The scale of many contemporary works, a category everyone is anxious to collect, has increased as well.
But it's also no secret that patrons are far more likely to write checks for construction than for anything else—especially now that museum building has become a competitive sport among cities. Not surprisingly, capital campaigns that aren't organized around a large building project face serious hurdles. What about buying art—maybe a trophy piece, like Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I, purchased by Ronald Lauder last June for the Neue Galerie, in New York? That alternative, trustees everywhere confirm, never comes up in the boardroom, where construction is the subject at the top of everyone's agenda.
"Most museum directors know better," says Nelson-Atkins head Wilson, who has kept projections of visitor numbers for his museum's expansion modest. "They get pushed into it by the trustees." As a result, Ellis adds, "a lot of museum directors are in a sort of quiet pain."
One recent day, the Hamilton wing in Denver is comfortably full of people. They stare up at its latticed atrium and roam galleries filled with temporary exhibitions of cutting-edge works, classic Japanese scrolls, and contemporary Native American pieces. Some visit the permanent collections of Western and contemporary art in their new homes. In Atlanta, the High is even more crowded, perhaps because school groups seem to be everywhere. Many are there to see "Kings as Collectors," a big loan show from the Louvre that fills the new Anne Cox Chambers wing.
But it's hard to miss another phenomenon at both places: The old buildings are pretty empty. That's why directors are sweating. With every addition comes a crush of visitors. But an inevitable diminuendo follows that crescendo. After the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston added an expansion, designed by Rafael Moneo, in 2000, attendance jumped to almost 1.8 million; in 2005 the figure was not quite 1.3 million. In Milwaukee the number of visitors climbed to more than 500,000 before falling back to less than 300,000. The Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art drew 300,000 in 2003, the year it opened its brand-new Tadao Ando building, versus 185,000 in 2005. At the Peabody Essex, attendance zoomed to 237,000 in 2004, then dropped by 40,000 the next year (it has since climbed back to 247,000).
"The building will take you only partway," Wieland acknowledges. "Once everyone sees the building, it's the program that brings people back. The pressure is on Michael [Shapiro, the High's director]." Pressure is also on Sharp, in Denver. Last year Hamilton persuaded him to delay his planned retirement and sign a new contract. "I wanted to make sure we had this all blocked out for the next five years, so we have a good product to sell," the oilman says. "He'll be here for five more years or I'll kill him."
Anyone who doubts the importance of programming need only look to Cincinnati. When the new Contemporary Arts Center was being planned there, donors spoke admiringly of the Guggenheim Bilbao's economic impact, and they thought big. One trustee told the Cincinnati Post that the number of visitors to the CAC's new home could reach 375,000 a year (a figure later scaled back to 180,000). After all, Hadid, the architect they hired, was very hot, and this was her first building in the U.S. She delivered a beauty, much praised by critics everywhere.
Attendance rose from 35,600 to only about 84,000. Then it fell to 54,000. Long before that, however, the board had replaced director Charles Desmarais with Linda Shearer, from the Williams College Museum of Art. Last September, Shearer resigned, with bad feelings all around. Trustee Richard Rosenthal says she was wrong for the job. "There were shows done that did not have the attendance we would like," he explains. "They were beyond the reach of what our patrons and our constituency wanted to see. That is not to say they weren't good shows." Rosenthal notes that the board is now shooting for 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a year. "We're not retreating. We are still doing cutting-edge exhibitions, but we're mixing them with others." In May, trustees hired a new director, Raphaela Platow, from the Rose Museum of Art, in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The fact that many museums can now, for the first time, offer a broad menu of shows is one positive outcome of the expansion frenzy. At the High, Stent says, "We can do three or four exhibitions at the same time." Sharp sees benefits for other areas, as well. "We are into more ambitious shows and special-event programming," he explains. "We want those types of activities—events and exhibitions that are complementary. We want it to be not 'Let's go down to the Denver Art Museum to see a great Impressionist show,' but 'Let's go down to the museum because there's always something going on there,' and the Hamilton building is part of that."
But Ellis fears everyone is missing the point. He says many museum trustees—and outsiders, like state and local governments, that provide support—don't understand museum economics. The increased admission fees that usually accompany attendance gains can't cover the increased costs of enlarged buildings. Bigger structures mean more money is needed for everything from staffing to exhibitions to education programs. In Denver, security costs alone almost doubled. The High's operating budget ballooned by more than half between 2005 and 2007. And most museums, Ellis says, reap less than 10 percent of their operating budget from the gate. So even doubling attendance—not an easy feat—doesn't help much.
As a result, the new, improved museums tend to spend a few years trying to balance the budget. They can't trim security, energy, or insurance costs, so they cut back on conservation, acquisitions, and curatorial staff. "Subtly, the ratio between fixed costs, which are about the building, and variable costs, which are the programmatic costs, has changed," Ellis notes. "And that means more building and less art."
The economics also affect the kind of programming that is done. Museums may feel pressured to take more touring or for-profit exhibitions, like the current King Tut blockbuster, or mount pop-culture displays of Star Wars memorabilia, hip-hop artifacts, or motorcycles rather than academically grounded efforts.
This is the same problem that has plagued the gigantic performing arts centers that many cities erected in the late 20th century. Unable to draw large crowds with the classical music and dance programs they were meant to showcase, many have booked touring Broadway shows, comedians, ice shows, and circuses to generate revenue. Could that devolution happen to second-tier museums that have overexpanded?
Absolutely not, directors respond. They believe that their new buildings will improve their ability to show great art. Shapiro says the High's three-year partnership with the Louvre was stimulated by the expansion. David Gordon, Bowman's successor in Milwaukee, says the new wing put the city on the art-world map and enabled him to lure a top chief curator, Joseph Ketner, to MAM's staff. Museums in Seattle, Dallas, and elsewhere have landed billions of dollars' worth of art from private collectors that never would have been given to their older, smaller selves. Denver claims its Hamilton wing was a magnet for all three: loans, collections, and a hotshot contemporary curator, Christoph Heinrich, from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, in Germany.
That's the official line anyway. But nonart activities are already increasing, especially space rentals for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate parties that add to earned income—as well as risk. Milwaukee is still living down the 2006 "Martinifest" incident, when drunken partygoers at a private event were caught climbing on sculptures, vomiting, and passing out in the Calatrava wing.
It will be years before it's clear which institutions overreached and which didn't. Sooner or later, though, all museums will have to contend with underlying trends. For the past few decades, NEA research shows, attendance has been rising a bit, but that's largely because the overall population is growing. Interest in art is fairly stable. Confronted with this picture, the museum world offers a ready answer: Its investments are about the long term. With a sense of optimism as lavish as their financial gifts, the current generation of donors has decided to take a chance and build for the future—even if it means taking a leap of faith now.
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