November 1, 2013

The Ubiquitous Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano museums seem to be everywhere and everywhere they are, they seem to be well received. Restraint is a good thing in a starchitect. The NY Times has a short piece about his many buildings: A Portfolio That Surprises Even Its Creator.

April 16, 2013

Mea Culpa: Milwaukee Art Museum

The Milwaukee Art Museum raised a lot of eyebrows in the museum world (including mine) several years ago when they needed to borrow money to finish their new Calatrava-designed addition, which included an extravagent folding Brise Soleil (an architectural sun shade). The board hoped that increases in attendance would pay the interest on the debt. When that did not happen, the museum reportedly laid off a significant number of staff as a consequence. Many of us shook our heads in a sad "I could have warned you" manner.

Perhaps we could have, but I am glad I didn't shake mine too vigorously. I finally had a chance to visit the museum with its new addition and I can now see why the board felt it was worth taking the risk.  The building is both beautiful and functional. The Brise Soleil  has not become an international icon, as some had hoped ("another Sydney Opera House"), but it is an icon for Milwaukee that everyone loves. It tells the world that Milwaukee is no longer just "famous" for being the home of Schlitz beer. The Brise Soleil punctuates the end of one of the city's most prominent avenues and is visible all along the waterfront, even when closed. I can't imagine Milwaukee without it.

While the Brise Soleil gets all the attention, the rest of the building is equally beautiful in a sculptured structure way. It takes the modernist dictum of form follows function and turns it into sweeping curves that are cathedral-like in their strength, symmetry, and repetition. The Brise Soleil marks the entrance, as it should. The rest of the building is essentially one long shed that connects the new entrance to the older building and its existing galleries. The new spaces include a large, open temporary gallery for major changing exhibits, a new store, an expansive lobby/event space, a new cafe, and parking under it all. These spaces connect to and compliment the traditional and contemporary galleries in the existing museum.

What I liked: The windows into the service entrance from the cafe and coat check level. The way the garage connected to the entrance. The entrance from parking, where you enter just as someone coming through the front door would. The children's workshops in the midst of the main galleries. The "Animation: Art goes to the Movies" exhibit, which was putatively for children, but which I found fascinating because of the juxtaposition of real works of art with the animations they inspired. The "Color Rush" photography exhibit. The "Museum Inside Out" exhibit, despite the fact that it didn't seem to be working for visitors.

What I didn't: The circulation was a little awkward: the new exhibitions space is in the middle of the "shed" with corridors on either side. The east, lakefront, corridor takes you to the entrance to the existing galleries; the west corridor seems almost superfluous. The lobby was filled with tables and chairs, presumably from an event. I suspect there is no convenient place to put them on the main level.

Most interesting artifacts: The Biedermeier Settee and clock. Wow!

Biggest disconnect: The old and the new.

March 12, 2013

Failing Museums: Endowment versus Engagement

Two recent news stories highlight “lack of endowment” as the reason for the failure of two very different museums, the Higgins Armory and LA's Museum of Contemporary Art. 

The Higgins Armory, in Worcester, Massachusetts, has struggled for several years and just announced that they would be closing their doors and transferring their collections and what is left of their endowment to the Worcester Art Museum. A statement from the board says that the "Higgins’ biggest challenge is our lack of a deep endowment."

LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has been in economic trouble for several years. They are now in discussions to merge with the LA County Museum of Art. The museum's explanation for their problems? "there's nothing that a hefty infusion of endowment cash could not solve.” (LA Times article)

From my (admittedly distant) perspective, The issue is not lack of endowment, but lack of engagement with the museum’s potential supporters, ranging from visitors to major donors. Both museums have failed to address the fundamental question that people ask when asked to give up their money, whether it is $10 for admission or $10 million for endowment: "Why does this matter to me?" 

It is easy to say “If only we had more money, we could do wonderful things!” It is much harder to say “We do wonderful things! Won’t you support us?” 

Any museum can keep its doors open if it has a deep endowment. Many manage just fine with hardly any endowment at all. It is easy to say “If only we had more money, we could do wonderful things!” It is much harder to say “We do wonderful things! Won’t you support us?” The real challenge is generating enthusiasm among many different constituent groups so that funding comes in from all kinds of sources, admissions, donations, and contributions towards endowment. "Lack of endowment" is simply the most convenient explanation, and one that shirks responsibility. 

I'd like to see these museums ask themselves "Where did we fail to engage people? What could we have done differently to build support?" Probing answers to those questions might not help the Higgins and MOCA, but they may help other museums that are struggling with similar issues.

March 8, 2013

Trouble on the Way?

The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney has a plan to add on to their museum. The AU$400 million addition sounds like it would be filled with useful space.  The potential for trouble comes with their ambition to build something that will be as significant as the nearby Sydney Opera House.
"We have the opportunity to create an iconic new building that will take its place alongside the Opera House as an international beacon of modernity, of creativity, of a celebration of the human spirit in Australia."
It is a noble idea. Many have tried. Not many have succeeded.

The existing Art Gallery of New South Wales.

February 8, 2013

Visitation isn't the only metric

The Virginia Gazette leads its piece on Colonial Williamsburg with the headline "Colonial Williamsburg paid attendance tumbles to 40-year low."Visitation is important, but the organizations other metrics are substantially more positive:
  • The foundation's endowment value rose to $730 million with a 13.1 percent return on investment. 
  • Donor gifts rose from $40 million to $63.7 million with 18,000 new donors.
  • Internet traffic and educational outreach both increased.
  • More people played the RevQuest game, which begins online and ends in the Historic Area.
This sounds to me like Colonial Williamsburg managed its finances very successfully, has made a strong case to donors that what it does is important and valuable, and has staked a claim in the online world. A more nuanced and balanced analysis of these metrics might tell us that Colonial Williamsburg is actually doing a a good job of achieving their mission and balancing their budget, despite steadly declining attendance. Far from "tumbling," it sounds like they are doing a good job adapting to new realities.

Visitation isn't the only metric, especially in an increasingly uber-connected world.

Escher as architect

From the New Yorker

February 4, 2013

The Met adds a visitor-friendly plaza

The Met just broke ground on a new visitor-friendly design for their Fifth Avenue plaza. Designed by OLIN, the new plan creates many more places to sit and a new emphasis on the street level entrances that have long been there, but were not readily apparent. The iconic steps will remain, but, with luck, may not be as crowded.

I'll have to see it in person, but the ideas seem simple and sensible. I like that. The Brooklyn Museum tried to solve some of the same problems in a much more radical way with generally disappointing results. Images via the NY Times.