January 9, 2009

Contemporary Art Museums

It finally hit me in the midst of a visit to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver–all these new contemporary art museums are the same museum!  The architectural program and operational plan for each is practical identical. They differ in architectural expression, although even there they are very much alike–white boxes with varying levels of transparency designed by up and coming architects on relatively limited budgets. What do they have in common?
  • Area of about 50,000 SF divided into several large and several small galleries, a spacious but minimally appointed lobby, two small classrooms/activity rooms, a small and off-beat cafe/bar, a well-stocked store, possibly a 100-seat auditorium or "learning center," funky bathrooms, and back office and support space. 
  • An active exhibit program with risky and not-so-risky artists (both of which are alternately lamented and celebrated in the local mainstream and alternative press).
  • Lots of parties, opening receptions, member nights, and evening hours
  • A membership on average 20 years younger than the local dowager art museum.
  • Minimal or no collections.
This formula has worked remarkably well from an operational perspective because the active and relatively low-cost exhibit schedule facilitates repeat visitation and lures event planners with a constantly changing backdrop for revenue-producing (and membership-enhancing) parties of all kinds. It doesn't hurt that they don't have the spatial and intellectual costs of maintaining a permanent collection, either.

The pattern began to explode perhaps with Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (is there an earlier model?) and continued with the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the New Museum in New York, The Frist in Nashville, Denver's recent entry, and others. The Broad in LA is a traditional museum (LACMA) capitalizing on the trend.

1 comment:

Laura Roberts said...

Interesting observation, Guy. But I think the Frist does not belong on this list. Not only is it a good example of adaptive reuse (a classical post office) but they show a far more eclectic mix of art. In fact, they do relatively few contemporary shows. But Chicago and Los Angeles should both be on the list! Both wonderful but definitely from an increasingly-predictable model.