July 31, 2016

Is the curatorial voice dead? 

In a Medium post, the developer of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new app delivers a fascinating, data-rich rebuttal to the Wall Street Journal's critique of the SFMOMA's new audio tours which "feature a range of fascinating hosts, including high-wire walker Philippe Petit, Avery Trufelman from the 99% Invisible podcast, members of the SF Giants organization, and comedians from HBO’s Silicon Valley.” Get the app here.

The WSJ critic feels that “SFMOMA would do well to rely more consistently on its own curators for cogent, pungent audio commentary.”  

But the data shows that visitors are overwhelming more engaged with the new tours. The piece that the critic likes best, "a curator-led audio clip about Mark Rothko’s No. 14 1960… ties for last on this list in completion rate (i.e. how far people make it before they stop listening), which we’ve found to correlate strongly with what people like.”

It is akin to the long-running argument about exhibit labels. Certainly the curatorial voice will always matter. But isn’t it wonderful when it is overwhelmed by other voices with other ways of seeing thee world as appears to be the case here? 

November 7, 2014

Crowdsourcing the new Guggenheim Helsinki

A fascinating, and scary, approach to museum design:
The Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition is the first open, international architectural competition to be organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. This initiative reflects the Guggenheim’s long history of engagement with architecture and design and its belief that outstanding original design can speak across cultures, refreshing and enlivening the urban environment.
What is fascinating? The competition is open to any architect and all entries are anonymous--there is no shortlist of the usual suspect starchictects. The jury will select six finalists without knowing which firm submitted the design. So far more than 1,700 designed have been submitted. Many are interesting. A few are quite odd. Some are strikingly beautiful.

What is scary? The goal seems to be to create an architectural landmark rather than a great museum. Here are the project's principles:
  • Outstanding, engaging, original design
  • Potential to become a landmark and a symbol of Helsinki
  • Sensitivity to historic waterfront setting
  • Sustainable placemaking from an economic, social, and environmental perspective
  • Strong connections to the historic city center, harbor and urban context, which are evident and enjoyable in all seasons
  • A design informed by Nordic ideals, including openness and accessibility
Where is "Be one of the world's great art museums"?

To be fair, the project brief does includes functional requirements and, admirably, says that "all areas of the museum should be conceived in terms of how they support social interaction and the experience of art. They should enhance the dialogue between visitors and art,"

The Guggenheim got luck in Bilbao by hiring an architect who fundamentally understands museums (see the Norton Simon), while also being able to create dramatic design solutions.  Will they be so lucky in Helsinki?

March 20, 2014

Daylighting for Museums

The Integrated Design Lab at Montana State University School of Architecture has a very good short guide to daylighting for museums (PDF) with basic guidelines and many good examples. It is a good sign that they open with a photo of the Kimball Art Museum and a quote from Louis Kahn:
So this is a kind of invention that comes out of the desire to have natural light. Because it is the light the painter used to paint his painting. And artificial light is a static light . . . where natural light is a light of mood . . . the painting must reveal itself in different aspects if the moods of light are included in its viewing, in its seeing. I think that’s the nature, really, of a place where you see paintings. 

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.

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.

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