Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Compare and Contrast: Museum vs. Casino
both images copyright: Potawatomi Bingo Casino
The post by Eddie Jones has brought to mind a conversation I've been having with architect Will Bruder, who, in addition to creating glorious, green buildings around the region and the globe, studied sculpture at UW-Milwaukee. Will and I have talked about the impact of buildings on a city's pride of place, and the intriguing comparison between the aesthetics, ethics and economics of the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Potawatomi Nation's Bingo Casino.
Briefly: The Milwaukee Art Museum's delicate Santiago Calatrava addition budget started at $35 million and ended up at $120 million (they added the brise soleil, parking lot and formal gardens). It took years to pay off the debt, there's been great turnover in staff, and in the meantime, caused great financial stress on other non-profit organizations in the city, whose own donations dropped as a result.
While everyone might agree that the building has become the spectacular icon as intended, the "Bilbao" effect (iconic building drives economic prosperity in the region) came to life in the U.S.
But some larger questions remain: what is happening inside the building, is the space used effectively enough, has this landed spacecraft had a ripple effect in the arts community, etc...
By contrast, when the Potawatomi Nation was allowed to build a casino in the Menomonee river valley, a former industrial site used by tanneries in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a sense that the tribe was getting bum land. People fought against the Casino in downtown Milwaukee, couched in anti-gambling rhetoric but often with a soupcon of something else. An article in the local weekly paper had an interesting observation: We have taken from the Native Americans what is most important to them--their land--and they are taking away from us what is most important to us--our money. The history of treatment of Native tribes in the state became an issue in this building.
Once the Casino was up--$120 million of their own money--the city realized how in-fill in the valley would connect the disconnected parts of the commercial corridor of the city. All of a sudden, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson wanted to up the taxes on the casino, beyond what had been negotiated before and with other Casinos. When in-coming Governor Jim Doyle, however, was willing to renew, and renegotiate, the Tribe's compact on the land, the Potawatomi announced they would double the space of the casino, another cool $120 million from their own coffers. The Tribe handled their own resources and has played a leading role in the revitalization of the entire area.
What struck me in this story was the similar budgets between the high-end, arch modernist building of the Calatrava addition and the for-profit, low-end, also modernist block of the Casino.
Is MAM suffering an "edifice" complex (I used this phrase well before the book came out): gorgeous exterior, empty interior? (In my medieval art history class they called this the butter tax, and affected buildings such as Notre Dame--the wealthy would give for above-ground building, not for substructure construction, which is why the church has had foundation problems). Despite a constant stream of good shows, the program has never been able to get out from under the shadow of the shell. Should architecture dominate what art museums do?
The Potawatomi Bingo Casino, on the other hand, has lots of content--gambling, restaurants, entertainment, and has continued as a hot bed of economic activity and tax dollars for the state.
Ultimately, what is intriguing in this building comparison is the schism that exists in public dialogue about the role buildings play in our image of self and community, and how people with different concerns and goals try to control that image. We, as citizens, typically have little to say in what is built in the environment, but we have a lot to gain or lose if we aren't more vocal in issues concerning our urban environment.