November 13, 2012

Can Roanoke be the Next Bilbao?

Read this fascinating case study from the folks at the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center about the development of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia.

The case study traces the evolution of the museum from its former home in a renovated warehouse to its new home in a striking $68 million building. The case for the new museum was driven by a need for more space and by a desire to create a new cultural icon for the community.
The museum’s home, Roanoke, was striving to get noticed, and to retain and attract information age companies and young, educated professionals and creative individuals. When the idea for a brand new museum finally surfaced, both the museum and the city were ready to saddle the fledgling initiative with dreams for national acclaim and community transformation. 
While the building is remarkable, the story does not have a happy ending.  The introuction to the case study summs it up:
In November 2008, after a $68 million project to build a new museum building in Roanoke was complete, the Taubman Museum of Art reopened. The $15 million needed to fund the new building was still to be raised, and by the end of the 2008 fiscal year (FY) in July, $14.4 million had been borrowed. Before the move, the museum was provided with its space free of any rental, maintenance, security, custodial, and utility fees by a local operating foundation at its Center in the Square. After the move, the costs of staffing and maintaining the facility far exceeded estimates, while the revenues proved far below expectations. In the first year, the museum’s operating budget before depreciation was $5.5 million. In fiscal year 2009, an additional $2.8 million had been borrowed and $945,000 paid in interest. This debt expense alone was larger than the entire pre-expansion operating budget. For the grand opening, the Taubman Museum had hired additional staff for a total of 52, but the financial pressure forced four rounds of layoffs, during which the staff was trimmed to 17. At the same time, the admission fee increased, from nothing before the project’s beginning to $3 during the capital campaign to $10.50 after opening. Even after these drastic measures, the museum is still struggling, fighting for its very survival. Moreover, other arts organizations complained that the museum had become a drain into which cultural funds were being sucked from foundations and philanthropists in Roanoke Valley.
Why did the Taubman Museum’s fortunes change so drastically after its move? To what extent was the new building—rather than the depressed economy—to blame for the severity of its crisis? What measures during the planning process could have been taken to prevent this catastrophe?

October 25, 2012

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures initial concepts

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has released the preliminary concepts for their new Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. This is a project I have been working on for five years  now. The project looks like it is going to move forward quickly with a concept approved by the Academy and $100 million in committed funding towards a $250 million budget.

The new museum will be at the end of the current Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus in the former May Company building, at the start of Los Angeles' Miracle Mile. The design architect is Renzo Piano in association with Zoltan Pali (these are their renderings). The conceptual design fully restores the Wilshire and Fairfax street-front facades of the 1938 department store building, including the iconic gold cylinder on the corner (which is vaguely reminiscent of an Oscar statuette). More striking is the new translucent glass dome  on the north fa├žade of the building which will house a state-of-the-art movie theater.

The museum's brochure is available here: Academy Museum Brochure This brochure is short on details about the building, but does a good job of selling the vision. 

September 27, 2012

The Hoki Museum: Breaking down barriers

The goal of the Hoki Museum in Japan is to "create an experience in which nothing comes between museumgoers and the art."

The first impression is of a building designed to startle and impress.  It does that, as do many recent museums, but in this case, it appears that the visitors are as important as the architecture. The museum uses specially designed and "tuned" LED lighting to de-clutter lighting systems, steel walls with a magnetic mounting system to eliminate visual distractions, windows below the art work to let in indirect natural light without the detailing necessary for skylights, and rubberized flooring to ease the strain on visitor's feet and knees.

A good overview is available in the Daily Yomuri and from the Japanese version of Metroplis magazine.The English version of the Museum's web site has limited information. The Japanese version has many more images, including many from the museum's collection of stunning contemporary realist Japanese art.

July 6, 2012

Deconstructing the Museum Building Boom

Remember when everyone wanted to emulate the so-called "Bilbao-effect" of Frank Gehry's remarkable museum built for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain? Many museums got built, but emulating Bilbao's success has proven elusive for other museum projects.  

The Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago has just released a fabulous data-driven study of museum and performing arts building projects from 1994 to 2008 that may finally put the Bilbao-effect to rest for good. The report (Set in Stone) provides a detailed analysis of more than 700 building projects  with budgets ranging from  $4 million to $335 million.

The bottom line? “At least in the beginning, each of these projects was based on the assumption that a new facility would help increase audience size, increase earned and donated income, and at least indirectly, help realize the institution’s mission. In some cases, this worked. But in many instances, the experiences in these new and expanded facilities were much more difficult and challenging than predicted, and put enormous strain on institutions."

Among the key findings:
  • More than 80 percent of the projects studied ran over budget, some by as much as 200 percent. 
  • Before formulating a final plan, institutional leaders and donors need to take time to adequately understand the precise reasons for launching a major building project, determine if there is actual need, and if there is adequate support in the community both for attendance, and for financial support. Skeptics need an opportunity to voice their concerns as part of this process.
  • When it came to motivation for the work, the most successful projects were driven by both the organization’s mission and by clear and definable need.
  • Projects were successful when leadership was clear and consistent throughout the process. It helped enormously when there was one project manager, answerable to the board, in charge of the details and accountable for progress.
  • Success also depended upon the flexibility of the organization in generating income after project completion, and on how effective the organization was in controlling expenses as the building took place.
  • People interviewed in the study said they may have made different recommendations had they had the chance to understand fully the scope and cost of the project from the beginning.
  • A big problem is estimating the actual demand for cultural projects.  Although increased education and income are usual predictors of demand, actual vs. predicted attendance does not follow a scientific formula. “It’s not an automatic, ‘you build it, and they will come.’”
  • In some cases, building projects suffered because they were not in sync with the mission of the organization, or were built more because of the individual aspirations of donors or local community leaders than because of an actual need for a facility.
  • Some projects stumbled when they became signature pieces for leading architects who ended up designing a significantly more expensive building than the organization could afford to build or maintain.
  • The initial cost projections for some of these structures were frequently extremely (and unrealistically) low, making the final tab much more expensive than originally forecast. 
  • Because it could take up to ten years to plan and complete a project, the actual needs of the communities served by the project could end up being very different from those originally envisioned.
  • As a result of these miscalculations, sometimes very substantial, some cultural arts facilities ended up being forced to reduce access, rethink performance and exhibition schedules, and lay off staff in order to meet their budgeting targets.
None of this is particularly surprising to those of us who watched it happen, but it is very helpful to have it laid out so clearly. We do have many wonderful new buildings because of the building boom. Now we also have some well-documented analysis that may help take the pain out of future building projects.

Note: The NY times has a nice overview article, but the full report is well worth reading through.  The introductory video on the report's web site has a very nice overview. The Quick Overview is a nice two-page info graphic.

May 2, 2012

Too much natural light?

It is a given (at least to most museum people) that natural light is the best way to experience works of art. But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing as there is now at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The reflected light from the windows in a new condo across the street is "threatening artworks in the galleries, burning the plants in the center’s garden, and blinding visitors with its glare."

Dallas Museum Simmers in a Neighbor’s Glare

(NY Times photo)

March 1, 2012

Who pays for Museum Tickets?

Fascinating info-graphic from Good magazine that clearly illustrates the difference between
what people pay for entrance to a museum and the actual cost of a visit for each museum.
Click here for the original.

February 6, 2012

Amplifying Visitor Satisfaction

Good advice when designing museums and museum exhibits. (Adapted from Seth Godin)
Research shows us that what people remember is far more important than what they experience. What's remembered:
-- the peak of the experience (bad or good) and,
-- the last part of the experience.
The easiest way to amplify visitor satisfaction, then, is to underpromise, then increase the positive peak and make sure it happens near the end of the experience you provide. Easy to say, but rarely done.

January 18, 2012

How Visitors Changed the Oakland Museum

The new art gallery spaces at the Oakland Museum of California are different from the typical row of paintings on white walls designed to provide a contemplative experience. The Oakland installations look like they were designed by a history curator, or perhaps by an animated group of teenagers. The traditional artist and period categories are largely missing, replaced by a lively mix of many different organizational techniques. The impact is jarring at first--Look here! No, look here! But then, as you spend more time, it is engaging--What's this? Why is that here? Have you seen this?

One thing the exhibition isn't is contemplative, and that is perhaps the point. Most visitors don't have the background to enjoy many art museum exhibits. A didactic exhibit that sought to explain would be deadly.  The OMCA opens up access to the art by seeking to engage visitors and then to validate individual responses. The spaces are inviting. The experience is comfortable. The result is visitors who have a fulfilling aesthetic experience and are, perhaps, inspired to learn more.

This is not the approach most art museum directors would choose. Contemplative experience are what many visitors expect, but it works here.

The Museum has published a book about their transformation: How We Visitors Changed the Oakland Museum (the strike-through is theirs). Lori Fogarty, the Executive Director, writes in the foreword:
When I first began here, we couldn’t capture the right word for what we were doing – except that they all began with “re.”  Remodel?  Not quite right – sounds like the kitchen.  Renovation? Suited more for an old farmhouse.  Reinstallation? Who knows what that means.  Reinvention? Well, only if we’re tossing our history aside. 
As we moved further into the process, however, I began to see that this project involved much more than the physical change of expanding galleries, enhancing the infrastructure, and improving our visitor amenties.  This project touches every aspect of the Museum – from the way we work together as a staff, with our visitors, with our community – an ultimately the vision of this institution.  We are transforming.  And, as the dictionary so aptly notes, this means changing our composition and structure; our outward appearance; and most fundamentally, our character and constitution.
(The quote is cribbed from the Arts Forward blog.)

January 9, 2012

Visiting the Clifford Still Museum

I finally had a chance to visit the Clifford Still Museum in Denver and liked it even more than I thought I might from the pictures. I liked:

  • The paintings, especially the early abstractions. Seeing these in any kind of reproduction does not do them justice.
  • The serenity of the simple, rectangular building nestling into the ground literally in the shadow of the Libeskind addition to the Denver Art Museum. (The looming will be less of an issue as the areas near the museum are redeveloped and provide more of a context for the building.) 
  • The lack of a store and cafe, de rigueur for museums these days, but prohibited in this museum by a provision of Still's will.
  • The perforated screens on the ceilings. According to the museum these are "a highly sophisticated systems of skylights, which bring selective spectrums of light into the building, which then pass through a cast-in-place concrete 'screen' that functions as a floating ceiling in the galleries." This system has the added bonus of creating a background texture for the ceiling that swallows up the often-intrusive light fixtures.
  • The texture of the exterior concrete. "Fins" of a sort stick out as much as two inches from the surface and soften the stark lines of the building. These are oddly lovely.
  • The openings between the galleries and between the floors which draw you up and down, in and around.

Overall, it worked very well as a building and as a place for Still's paintings. Well worth a visit for the paintings and the building.