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.