November 17, 2011

Clyfford Still Museum

The Denver Art Museum has some new competition, the about-to-open Clyfford Still Museum right next door.  The two museum buildings could not be more different.  The Liebskind addition to the DAM is wildly exuberant. The restrained Still Museum is mature and settled. 

Designed by Brad Cloepfil, principal of Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Oregon, the new museum underwhelms where the Libeskind addition dominates. The Still building itself is beautiful in the way that Lauren Bacall is beautiful--simple, elegant, and gracious. And she needs to be gracious with Lady Gaga sitting next to her. I love both women and both museums, for very different reasons, and it is remarkable to see them next to each other. Where Liebskind's building focuses on the architecture, Cloepfil's defers to the art. It is a simple box (modernist revival?), but that is what the program calls for for most art museums. In the Libeskind building, you can't escape from the architecture--it looms and threatens to capsize. In Coepfil's building, it is the art that is outrageous. Lady Gaga might be a lot of fun, but Lauren Bacall is the better bet for the long haul, as Humphrey Bogart certainly understood. 

The Denver Post has a few articles. (Photo credit to them, too). There will be many more once the museum opens tomorrow.

Sacred standards under attack!

For decades, it has been sacrosanct that the ideal conditions for museum collections are 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% relative humidity. Conservators have had a more nuanced understanding, based on the actual materials in a particular artifact, but even for them stability at the desired settings is considered vital to long-term survival of museum artifacts.

Not so much anymore.

While it is still a touchy subject (see the footnote to the attached article), museum directors and conservators are beginning to let things fluctuate a little in the name of saving the environment. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to maintain precise humidity levels and studies have consistently shown that gradual changes in humidity do not damage artifacts.

No less a director than Sir Nicholas Serota, director of London's Tate galleries is chiming in:
Standards under attack!"We need to devise imaginative new solutions to resolve the dichotomy between long-term collections care and expensive environmental conditions,"
Read more in the Guardian.

August 25, 2011

The Bilbao Effect, dead at last?

If the so-called Bilbao Effect has not been totally discredited by now, the looming demise of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City will pound the final nail in its coffin.  The Bilbao Effect (named after  a Frank Gehry designed museum in Bilbao, Spain) posits that signature architecture will drive museum attendance.  It may have worked in Bilbao (although many other factors were at work as well), but it hasn't worked any place else. (I would be delighted to be corrected on this!)

The most recent example of the failure of the Bilbao Effect is the American Folk Art Museum in New York City which has defaulted on its construction bonds. The Museum expected to be able to repay some $30 million in loans based partly on attendance income generated in part by its shiny new building. The location couldn't have been better--next door to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the heart of Manhattan, but, sadly, the attendance never materialized and neither did the income.

We can't pin this one entirely on the architects, though, the fault really lies with whoever made the decision to borrow essentially the entire construction cost of the building. If it didn't have to pay $1.5 million/year in debt service on its construction loans, the museum could have created all kinds of exhibitions and programs that would have generated revenue, and, even more importantly, engaged a broader community with the museum on an ongoing basis. The museum made a splash when it opened. I went to the city to see it, but I haven't been back since. It appears no one else has either. Collections, exhibits and programs are a museum's lifeblood. They are what inspire visitors and donors, not architecture.

Borrowing money to build or sustain any museum is a risky proposition. Betting that signature architecture will pay the loans off is even riskier. Fundraising ability is a crucial measure of a museum project's likelihood of success. If the museum can't convince people to donate money to fund the latest great idea (construction or otherwise), that great idea might not be all it is cracked up to be. The loss of the Folk Art Museum is one more testament to that truth.

March 31, 2011

Just more of the same?

Nicolai Ouroussoff has an interesting take on the de-personalization of three major museums in his NY Times article Eccentricity Gives Way to Uniformity in Museums.  He sees the Getty Villa, the Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the Barnes as all being renovated in ways that in theory preserve their spirit, but in practice turn them into places much like every other modern museum.

He has a point.

These older museums with their cramped entry foyers and expansive galleries no longer fit the mold of contemporary museum experiences, where stores, cafes, and other amenities stand guard over the exhibits. And the lobby has become the biggest and, seemingly, the most important space. Unlike the galleries, the lobby can be used for the special events that raise the profile of the museum in communities that provide financial support. The exhibits aren't neglected, but they are not the foreground anymore.

The annul gala in the Hall of Ocean Life
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Smithsonian's American Art Museum are but two recent examples. In museums that cannot create big new lobbies, the special event spaces find their way to other parts of the museum.  The American Museum of Natural History's recently renovated Hall of Ocean Life seems to have been more about creating a huge party venue than it was about refreshing the exhibits and visitor experience. (Photo from the New York Social Diary.)

Who is to blame?  Ouroussoff blames museum boards and the "spirit of our time." I think that architects and museum planners (self included) are equally to blame. Old line museums that depended on their endowments are increasingly being forced to find ways to increase both donations and earned revenue. If museums are beginning to look like very upscale shopping malls, it is because the architectural models we have for earned revenue are retail models.

There is also an awful lot of group think going on–"If they have it, then we must need it, too"–that leads to architectural programs that include every possible element.  Architects and museum planners should give more thought to the unique personality of the museum, the kind of visitor experience that captures that personality, and the ways the building might work to make the museum experience distinctive and memorable, as well as profitable.

March 17, 2011

Get your kings and queens at the table!

An excellent interview with Nancy Burd in the Philadelphia Enquirer on borrowing money for museum capital projects. She talks about the Please Touch Museum's $30 million debt due to their recent move into a much larger new building.
There were some obvious red flags. For example, a facility project at Memorial Hall that was massively larger than their former facility on 21st Street, requiring them to achieve transformational growth; taking on a debt level that was more than one-third of their projected annual operating budget; enormous fixed costs requiring far more working capital and operating reserves (in other words, cash).  
Burd notes that debt is never a good idea and that museums should either raise the money they need to build the building "or be confident that increased revenues will cover annual operating costs" including debt service.

To me, any museum that is confident that it will increase its revenues sufficiently to cover debt services is misguided. Too many museums have found themselves in just the situation the Please Touch Museum is in.  There are far too many variables in museum projects to make operating projections any more than educated guesses. The only sure-fire way  to ensure debt service is manageable is not to have any debt by raising all of the funds needed for the project from its supporters.
The point is that an organization that wants to build a palace had better have its kings and queens at the table from the start.
Update: Another museum in trouble because of optimistic projections: the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.  800,000 people projected in the first year. 200,000 showed up. The NY Times has the scoop.  New sports museums and halls of fame seem to often have misplaced projections. Millions of people are sports fans; a very small percentage of them seem to go to sports museums. 

NY Times Special Section on Museums

The NY Times' special museums section is online. As usual, the focus is primarily on art museums, but it also has a sub-section on Social Media, Internet, Technology and Museums. Worth a look.

March 1, 2011

Museums as "Public Rooms"

Witold Rybczynski has a short piece on Public Rooms which is worth quoting in its entirity:
Philip Johnson once called museums the modern age’s cathedrals, and museum’s are sometimes thought of as the architect’s commission of choice. But a museum is basically a series of display rooms whose architecture is—or should be—subservient to its contents. The reason that places of worship were traditionally the acme of the architect’s art, is that they are (very large) public rooms whose design is usually required to celebrate and elevate their religious function. Theaters, like concert halls and opera houses, are likewise more challenging than museums. Unlike museums, which are places for private contemplation, these are places for a shared experience. They are also buildings in which the architect can ply his art. Once the curtain goes up, the hall belongs to the performers, but before then the architect is free to pull out all the stops.
Too many museum have been the victims of architectural hubris.  I completely agree that large performance spaces are a perfect place for architects to ply their art.

However, the public areas of museums are also ripe for architectural exuberance. The lobbies of museums are growing ever larger as they begin to embrace their role as community centers as well as places for "quiet contemplation" (and as museums realize the economic potential of such spaces). The public space can be a "pull out all the stops" kind of space that Rybczynski describes, but the exhibit areas need to be contemplative and/or functional  depending on their content.

This is a distinction that I.M. Pei got right years ago at the East Wing of the National Gallery and that Daniel Libeskind didn't understand at the Denver Museum of Art. Mediating the interface between the public space and the museum space is an additional challenge, which Foster + Partners got right at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' new wing. The lobby and gallery spaces are visually connected, which helps keep visitors oriented, but are separated by multiple walls of glass, which acoustically and visually isolates them from each other. The atrium at the MFA is not the East Wing, but it does serve as a very effective model for the functional program for other museums.

February 19, 2011

A Musical Review of the New World Symphony

There have been lots of architectural reviews (Witold Rybczynski likes it, too. See his review, Frank Gehry is Back, on Slate.)

More interesting is the review by the New Yorker's music critic, Alex Ross.  He looks at the building not as a work of architecture, but from the owner's perspective as a place that works for the students who are there, but as important, as a place that inspires new interest in classical music.  Apparently it fulfills both parts of the program beautifully.

As a performance space, the concert hall and the park are anything but "classical" and that seems to Ross to be a good thing. He was especially impressed with the quality of the sound in the outdoor sound system (167 speakers):
The [outdoor] speaker system has enormous impact, but without the fuzzy bloat typical of outdoor amplification. A few artificially beefy bass notes aside, it captures, to an amazing degree, the airy power of sound reverberating in space.
Outdoor speakers are in a series of tubes that rise from the landscape of the park.
An audio slide show is here. The article may or may not be available here. (The New Yorker is protective of their content.)

This is the kind of review that we need for museums.  It looks at how well the building fulfills the owner's program rather than focusing on the sculptural qualities of the building. Architectural reviews are useful, but they are only one part of the mix of what makes a building If only we had more museum reviews, like this one, that weren't focused primarily on the sculptural qualities of the building, especially one as ambitious and complex as this one.

Missed Connections at Boston's MFA

I was finally able to visit the new wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts last weekend. The architecture critics have hashed it over and, I think, generally get it right: It works well, but there is no passion there. (See Ada Louise Huxtable in the WSJ, for example.) The lack of passion perhaps means there is lots of room for art. The galleries are well proportioned, nicely lit, and the installations are just lovely. And, thankfully, my favorite paintings are now back on view.

A few notes:

Enviable circulation: The museum now has a circulation system that most large art museums would envy. Galleries flow out from the original central axis and it is remarkably easy to find one's way around. This is the beauty of several large additions (Pei and now Foster) instead of the hodge-podge of many small ones.

Atrium at the end of the day. Typically, it is filled with people.
Counters on wheels!
An Italian square in the middle of the museum: The new atrium space is inviting, despite the Foster-chill of slate, steel, and glass. It is used as a cafe during public hours, and was packed full of people and had a little of the feel of an European public square. That's good for visitors and the bottom line, but the best part of it is that all of the serving counters are on wheels.  Everything is modular and can be unplugged and rolled away (or reorganized) for the major events the space was designed for. It is, again, like that Italian square that is a local market in the morning (fish, veggies, flowers), a cafe at lunch and dinner time (tables and chairs), and a night club late at night (leather sofas, yes really, dance music, and soft lighting). I'd love to see it used as a market, but suspect that is not in the plans.
Air return vent

Techy note: The return air plenums are in the four-foot thick walls between the galleries. Peering through the grates, one can see to the top and bottom of the building.  The thick walls provide a nice transition between the galleries, but also act as giant air handlers.  It would be interesting to know more about Foster's thinking behind the building's systems.

Long, empty, corridor.
Missed connection: The missed connection is a place on two of the upper levels of the new wing called "Making Connections." This is an art learning space where they have some computer interactives ("What Style is It?" kinds of things) and small, but interesting, exhibits about the curatorial process. Sadly, the space is as disconnected from the galleries as possible, on the far east end of the building, off of the window-walled, wrap-around corridor that encircles the end of the addition.  It is a lovely space with very few visitors because the circulation within the galleries is so logical. The Making Connections gallery is recessed at the center of this long wall, so it is not visible from either end. It feels like someone wanted this space as far away from the art as possible. Could they not have come up with a more organic way to integrate learning spaces without disrupting the quite wonderful aesthetic experience that is the museum's principal attraction?

February 9, 2011

A Museum for the Un-museumed?

What would a museum be like that was designed from the ground up as a place for people who are not used to going to museums?
     It might look a lot like the church near Kansas City whose mission is to be "a church for the unchurched."
     The Heartland Community Church goes out of its way to eliminate the barriers that prevent people from going to church. Thinking about their site and building are central components of their approach. How is Heartland different from other churches?
  • Located in a former furniture superstore in the middle of one of Kansas City's "busiest retail centers" (their words), just off the highway and visible from 100,000 cars passing each day on I-35.
  • Surrounded by 1,100 parking spaces.
  • No mention of "church" in any of the signage.  What signs there are, simply say "Heartland."
  • A facade that is warm and welcoming–wood, trees, and lots of glass, ensuring transparency.
  • No religious iconography on the facade. No Christ on the cross, and, in fact, no crosses anywhere, inside or out.
  • A "welcome" booth near the entry staffed by volunteers.
  • A natural-light filled lobby that is designed to be 1.5 times as big as the room where the services take place so that people have a chance to socialize after the service. The building is 1110,000 square feet. The lobby is at least 20% of that and has multiple groupings of leather couches to further encourage people to linger.
  • A bookstore/gift shop and a small cafe with coffee service that also encourage lingering.
  • Large, clear signs identifying spaces, including the "auditorium," which is where services take place.
  • Inviting areas for kids that feel more like a play ground than Sunday School.
Much of this will sound familiar to museum-goers.  If they had areas called "Exhibits" or "Collections,"  I might have thought I was in a museum.
     The no-barriers approach continues with their customer service.  No one is ever asked for a donation during services.  You can wear what you want, come and go as you please, and are greeted with a smile wherever you are.  Despite the lack of  church-y visual messages, the service itself was what you might expect from a "good news" Christian denomination.
     Even for an unrepentant Yankee atheist, this felt like a very comfortable place to be.
     What can museums learn from this? Perhaps what it means to have an unrelenting focus on making the visitor feel welcome and a part of the community. To me, the most surprising thing is the huge lobby–doesn't church take place in the pews? It must cost a fortune to heat and cool that space. But the social part of church is clearly as important to Heartland as the spiritual part.  The church is meant to be a community center and the lobby gives them a kind of town square that is missing in many newer communities.
     Heartland worked with the Kansas City firm 360 Architecture who did a wonderful job on what must have been a tight budget (their portfolio has some lovely pictures).  The church clearly brought a very strong program to the design process.  The have some notes about the process on their web site.

The lobby with cafe tables to the right and auditorium behind the light well.

The bookstore
Sunday School entrance
Youth room

February 1, 2011

Igniting the Power of Art

According to the Dallas Museum of Art's PR department, over the past few years, the museum has had "a 100% increase in overall attendance and dramatic increases in the Museum’s visibility, membership, and public programming participation."

Sounds just like what every museum would like to see happen! What's the secret? A major new addition by a star architect?  Blockbuster exhibits? A major marketing campaign? Nope. Visitor Studies. While many museums spent the past decade or so planning, designing and building new buildings (or major additions to existing buildings), the DMA spent the 90s trying to better understand their visitors and reshaping their practices and programs to better meet audience and community needs.

Science centers and children's museums have long understood the value of understanding visitors, but this is the first time a major art museum has joined in. The DMA's new book documents their process:
Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museum.

Reading the book and visiting the museum are now on my short list.

Bonnie Pitman talking about the museum:

January 24, 2011

Gehry's Latest in Miami Beach

The New World Center is remarkable because it defies all of the Gehry stereotypes.  Sure, it has swoopy forms, but they are mostly contained within a big, practical, rectangular box that might even be called contextual in white-stucco-happy Miami Beach. Perhaps this is not a "new" Gehry, however, but a Gehry working within the constraints of the program, site, and budget, and pleased to be doing so. One of my favorite museums is the Norton Simon in Pasadena, redesigned and updated by Gehry years ago.  It, too, defies the Gehry stereotypes (even the old ones) and is a simple, building with delightful galleries and a wonderful openness to the outdoor space that the u-shaped building surrounds.

The New World Center brings the same kind of simplicity together with the expected dynamic forms, but the building is clearly about more than just form. Gehry describes it as a "program driven building" designed to engage younger audiences with classical music.  This is no palace to music, like the Disney Hall or even Lincoln Center, but an open, inviting place with a huge glass wall and a lobby open to the public during the day. The music from concerts in the hall will be piped live into the adjacent (and lovely) park and video will also be projected onto the flat white wall that faces the park. This will be a popular destination for more than the well dressed and well funded.

Too often, architects see museum as a chance to design a cathedral.  Concert halls are similar places (see Rybczynski on this). Unlike a cathedral, which is meant to awe, the New World Symphony building inspires, but also welcomes visitors at every opportunity.

I would love to see the same balance of inspiration and accessibility applied to a museum building.

Links:  NY Times (the photo is theirs) and Miami Herald