Houses of Art: The Many Challenges of Museum Building Projects

Addison main gallery after renovation, 2010 (© Jeff Goldberg, Esto)
Over-budget construction costs, famous architects on the loose, vainglorious directors…

While you read this, remember $73 million. That’s the debt the Clark Art Institute owes on its expanded and renovated buildings. It’s paying the bill over a period of years from its operating budget, slashing its art acquisition and exhibition programs to a minimum. The art world isn’t immune to the laws of economics.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll write periodically about museum building projects. I’ve been deeply involved in two. At the Clark, I was a curator during most of the planning stage for its immense project. At the Addison Gallery, I was director for ten years during which we renovated our building and added a new wing. Over the past 20 years, almost every museum of consequence has had a building plan. I’ve learned plenty from these, too. There are good and not-so-good ways to build.

First of all, Clark’s biggest new building, designed by the Japanese architect Tadeo Ando, is nice. It’s sleek. It plays well with the original 1955 Greek temple–like building and the Brutalist 1973 building. It opened five years ago but was in the planning stages since the late 1990s. It’s what I call an “Old Economy” building with lots of features — an expansive reflecting pool, a big shop, extensive new landscaping, a new restaurant, among them — that are pricey but peripheral to the core museum experience.

Clark Center and reflecting pools (© Jeff Goldberg, Esto)

For most museums that were still in the conceptual phase, the Great Recession led to leaner, economically efficient projects. Donor thinking and the “New Economy” demanded it. Another new Clark building, designed by Ando and surely the grandest conservation lab in the country, is gorgeous. It opened right before the crash. It was very expensive, considering it’s a high-end art-repair shop hidden in the woods, with some galleries. Far from the main museum and accessible after a hike up a hill, its programming often feels like an afterthought. In the early Teens, the original Clark building was gently and smartly renovated.

The construction phase lasted about ten years, preceded by ten years of circuitous planning. The total cost for construction alone was $170 million. How much the Clark raised in hard, philanthropic cash and how much it took from its endowment is anyone’s guess, as is how much was raised for new, restricted endowment-generating income for all the new costs that the project entailed. My sense is that the Clark raised a lot but spent a lot more, borrowing a ton and doing a piggy-bank dive. Having gone to Williams and worked for the Clark, I’m proud of what it was able to raise and the fundraising base it built, big debt notwithstanding. Before the project, it had no history of asking for money.

I’ve often written about the responsibilities of trustees. While they’re serving, trustees essentially own the place. They have an ethical obligation to steward it, and no time is more transformative and dangerous than the months and years of a building program. Each board member needs, obviously, to pay attention. All trustees must have skin in the game, too, which means a substantial level of financial commitment in the project. I’m surprised by how many projects are launched by boards with powerful but stingy members. Ideally, some will give more than others, but everyone needs to give — and give a lot. Trustees who don’t give might be good people, but they’re less likely to follow what’s happening or care about the bottom line if they know someone else is paying.

Diversity is important, and I don’t mean race or gender. During a building project, the board should include some trustees with experience in real-estate development and construction. If the board is entirely lawyers and financial-services people, it will make some bad decisions.

Pyramids are for pharaohs. Until the 2008 financial crisis, the overwhelming inclination of museum directors was to build. It was a measure of personal power and success. I was a member of the Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) for ten years during the Aughts. There was a race among directors, with dollar amounts, boutique architects, and square footage sounding like the number and range of intercontinental missiles during the Cold War. “My new building costs $100 million,” one would ooze. “Well, mine’s $150 million,” another purred. It was an unhealthy dynamic. It goes without saying that by the next meeting the $100 million project grew to $150 million and 99 cents, and onward and upward.

Most directors look at buildings as a monument to their reign. It’s pride that goeth before the fall. A monument to art is one thing, and a museum building should be beautiful and impressive, not a cheap, climate-controlled box. A monument to ego is different. It’s up to the board to enforce restraint.

Mission creep is perilous. The Clark’s 1994 building plan, which was unambitious, envisioned only a new loading dock and a new art-conservation lab costing $6 million. Twenty years later, the project grew to two new buildings, two renovations of old buildings, and a massive landscaping project, at a total cost of $170 million. Preventing mission creep requires planning, discipline, and occasional cold-heartedness. Trustees and directors often grow giddy, believing that lots of money will flow once potential donors see their plans. This rarely happens, which is why at least half the money a capital campaign seeks should be in place, at least in pledge form, before the design phase begins in earnest.

It’s strange to write the obvious, which is that “the art comes first,” but it often doesn’t. I’m downright puritanical when it comes to visitor amenities such as restaurants, shops, and introductory video theaters. Lots of this can be distracting junk. Sometimes classrooms are good, but the best classroom is the gallery. I’m skeptical of separate entrances for schoolchildren and other groups because they’re always about processing people and consequently second-rate. Everyone should have the same exciting, art-filled, grand entrance, but preferably not like the Louvre’s, where visitors enter like rats.

I think directors and architects are naturally controlling. They want to tinker with a visitor’s experience from the moment he pulls his car into the driveway, and the longer the path to the galleries, the more they can show brilliance and sculpt the experience. One of the pleasures of the Addison’s 1931 Charles Platt building was its rudderless philosophy. Visitors enter a small, elegant rotunda, the art is there, and no architectural signal tells you to turn right or left. It’s up to you. There’s a tiny shop and a cloakroom tucked in what were once closets. I think all of this absence is good. The point is to put visitors and art together, and to do so with dispatch.

Addison Gallery rotunda, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., sculpture and fountain by Paul Manship, Venus Anadyomene, 1927 (© Jeff Goldberg, Esto)

Big, new reception spaces are money pits, unless the museum routinely hosts parties for hoards. Party time aside, they’re seas of empty space, often artless and echoey. The best party spaces in a museum are in the permanent collection galleries, but most American museums prohibit food and beverages in the galleries and therefore build caverns for their receptions. It’s a registrarial tyranny. I have been to dozens of dinners in Europe in museum galleries and have yet to hear that someone stuck a fork in a Titian. With attentive security and good planning, the art will be fine. American museums would save money and have better openings more closely tuned to the art if they abandoned the silly prohibition and allowed at least hors d’oeuvres and white wine in their permanent collection galleries.

Consultants sometimes give answers that the director and the architect want. Even if consultants are never specifically told what they’re meant to say, they will intuit it. Consultants will usually err on the side of more building and tinkering. It’s not always self-interest. They just think that most things are better when they’re new, needed or not.

Trustees should look as hawks look, closely tuned to weakness, at estimates for future operating costs — utilities, staff, and programming — where there’s a new or expanded building. These are often underestimated. Future paid attendance is often overestimated. It’s what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.” An eternity of cost-slimming, warm winters and cool summers might very well happen but probably won’t. Visitors will pay to see the new building once. They will come again only for good programming. If programming is cut because a new building costs more to operate than estimated, they won’t come again.

Some new museum buildings are obvious disasters. The Denver Art Museum building springs to mind. It was clear the star architect didn’t spend much time with the curators, or ignored them, since the spaces are so inhospitable to art. Mostly, though, when I see a new building, I don’t fully know what the specific goals were, who the audience is, what challenges the site presented, or how much money was available. What looks awful might have been unavoidable because of laws governing, say, access for the disabled. So I tend to be kind.

Often, big money goes to things that are hidden, such as new climate control, storage, security, or earthquake protection. Most of New England is in an earthquake zone, I discovered, when we designed a new roof for the Addison. It was a building-code issue and cost money.

For the Addison’s lovely 1931 Charles Platt building, it’s hard to see any evidence of renovation. I wanted it to look cleaner and fresher, but, aside from new lighting, the galleries seem the same. You can’t improve on perfection. Yet behind the walls, every system was replaced. The Yale Center for British Art, Louis Kahn’s last museum building, was guided by the same philosophy. After a thorough renovation, the building looks nearly as it did on the day it opened in 1977. It’s glorious and a monument to self-control. At the Addison, and at many small, boutique museums, more exhibition galleries would have been poison. Its brand is tied to intimacy of scale.

Some new museum buildings are revelatory but not in good ways. The new Barnes in Philadelphia is nearly identical to the old Barnes. Seen afresh, with modern lighting and without the frisson of entering the old place’s secret, dim world, its new home invited me to realize what a weirdo Barnes was, how spotty his taste, and how boring his display strategy.

Having done a small new building and a renovation of a small but distinguished old building, I look at projects like the Whitney with admiration and awe. It’s huge, entirely new, handsome, commodious, and, after so many bad plans and false starts, actually standing. I know the old Yale University Art Gallery intimately. Its renovation and incorporation of adjacent old buildings is fantastic. The new Fogg Museum complex at Harvard was, at well north of $400 million, hideously expensive. There was no reason to hire the famous but predictable and unexceptional Renzo Piano as an architect, except that he was famous, expensive, and Harvard could get him. Each reason is a waste of philanthropy.

The new glass museum at the Toledo Museum of Art is elegant and practical, as is the new museum at the University of Michigan and the expansions of the Huntington. “Elegant and practical” are perfectly acceptable standards for a museum expansion, along with a museum spin on the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”


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