Saturday, December 26, 2009

Build It, But Will They Come?

Kevin McMahon and Akua Nyame-mensah "The Bilbao Boom or Bust?" in Next American City, issue 25, pp. 30-31.

Of all the news analyses of the trends of the '00's I have particularly enjoyed the writing about the museum building boom of the past decade.

This recent article in Next American City and Robin Pogrebin's December 12 article in the New York Times both explored the trend of large museum additions and the resulting economic impact on the museum itself. (We know this routine: a museum expands, the director leaves, staff is laid off. Rinse. Repeat.)

I started anticipating the "Bilbao Effect" in 1998 faced with the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum being completed. But since the economic collapse of the 1980s I have also bemoaned the grafting of for-profit management and market-expansion goals onto non-profits to disastrous effect.

What if, like businesses, non-profits don't have endless capacity for market expansion unless they "buy" other businesses (or expand their own space)? What if we cannot force increased market share (museum attendance) just because we're bigger? What if the expanded institution misinterprets the new entertainment options available and thus misinterprets their own mission and goals accordingly? What, ultimately, is the value of the preservation of material culture in our throw-away American society?

Is, perhaps, the museum model still a fundamentally European ideal?

Of the examples in the article above--Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Akron and Roanoke--I would say the Zaha Hadid building in Cincinnati had both an impact on the city and the art world because of the budget kept in check, it was the completion of a first museum building by a woman, etc...

But the most important question is: have the exhibitions at any of these institutions matched the ambitions of the building for the better elucidation of ideas, the unearthing of new content, the reinterpretation of the past in light of the present and future?

I would say rarely has that happened. So what, then, is the ultimate goal of the "Edifice Complex"? More realistic understanding of the museum's role in contemporary society, getting back to non-profit roots, actually press politicians and supporters to understand what museums do for the community, and not just in terms of tax revenue.

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