September 14, 2009

Looking back at the Nelson Atkins Addition

In a short interview on the Modern Art Notes blog (Part One and Part Two), the Nelson-Atkins Museum's retiring director Marc Wilson talks about the museum's new Stephen Holl-designed wing.

Wilson is a man after my own heart as he emphasizes two things: that you need to for a successful in a building project: 1) to be a strong client and 2) that community participation is critical to success.
In terms of our goals, [the addition] has met every single goal and there's nothing we would change. I think that's an unusual statement. We did our homework and I think so far as the architecture goes we were an exceptionally strong client.
With such an assertive design, and such a strong architect, it is essential to be a strong client and to advocate for the museum's and the visitor's needs. One way to do that is to deeply involve the community in the process, as they apparently did:
From the beginning, the building project had tremendous community participation. It wasn't just the director and a couple people. We interviewed 250 people. We went to our market cities like Wichita and Omaha and we talked to taxi drivers and teachers and patrons and so forth. It had broad input and that helped us end up with our goals.
And response to the new wing is measurably positive:
The guards have a stopwatch and we can track how much time people are spending with certain works. In the [new wing] they are spending about three times as much [as in the 1933 building] and we're loving that.
More controversial may be his notion that visitors have changed:
I think audiences have abdicated their responsibility and put the success of their experience on the institution, on the producer, on the musician, the orchestra or whomever. They don't seem willing to take into account their level of preparation, their willingness to exert of themselves. I think that's a huge change.
Perhaps it isn't the visitors that have changed, but our understanding of our visitors. The traditional museum visitor (affluent and classically-educated) comes to a museum with a certain background and perspective. New audiences (more diverse, less affluent, differently educated) are going to come to the museum with different needs and expectations. Meeting these new visitors on their own terms will be critical to the long-term success of the museum.

No comments: