The State of Museums 10 Years After Bilbao
Kate Taylor writing for the NY Sun has a provocative piece on the massive flood of museum expansions around the world. When the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim opened ten years ago the world questioned whether or not people would make the trek to Bilbao, Spain for the beautiful building. It almost seems like a foolish speculation now. Since then museum projects have sprung up all around the world with bigger buildings and bigger budgets. But what will the future hold for these massive expansions, will they be seen as the monumental establishment of an arts-based culture or will they seem like just so much architectural foolishness, possibly even bankrupting the museums they tried to expand?
Taylor's article says that the answer is different for each project. The Denver Art Museum for example, which opened a new building by starchitect Daniel Libeskind last fall, thought that the expansion would bring them a million new visitors in the first year. Instead, it received just 630,000. Even the stunningly beautiful Santiago Calatrava addition at the Milwaukee Art Museum caused the museum to go into debt for a few years although now the museum does nearly double the traffic it did before the expansion. For the cities, a distinctive new building, especially one built by a name architect is also a matter of civic pride. But a large new building requires new methods of income often including restaurants, larger museum shops and special exhibition galleries. The focus on revenue rather than arts doesn't sit well with some museum leaders.
The biggest news on the museum front may just be the expansion into markets like China and the Middle East. The government of Abu Dhabi is planning a $27 billion "cultural district" on Saadiyat Island that will be home to a Gehry-designed Guggenheim, a Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Jean Nouvel and a performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid. In China museums funded both by the state and private organizations are booming. The branding of museums all around the world with Western names and in some cases borrowed Western collections seems to be a major trend uniting Eastern cash with Western experience. This may not be a situation that sits well with purists but culture is a commodity and even museums are not immune from the power of branding.