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.

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