Frank Gehry’s Syndrome Makes Museums Show Biz

Why is it that announcements of new art-museum construction, which used to bring cheer to so many art lovers, are nowadays more likely to generate a feeling of suspicion and dread? Is it because we no longer have reason to believe that the creation of new museum buildings will do much to enhance our experience and understanding of art itself? I believe so. Indeed, there is often more reason to believe that the construction of new museum buildings will only serve as a substitute for, or alternative to, the experience of art. In other words, a diversion and a distraction.

I was reminded of this melancholy development the other day, when I found myself reading a lengthy story in The New York Times headlined “It’s Museum Time Down South; From Virginia to Louisiana, a Building Boom for Culture.” As often happens in the case of The Times , the subhead on this story proved to be misleading. For the story wasn’t about a “Boom for Culture”; it was about money, prestige and strategies of economic development. It was about tourism and trophy architecture.

The sums of money involved are certainly head-spinning, especially in the current economic climate. A new building for the Mobile (Ala.) Museum of Art, scheduled to open later this year, is expected to cost a mere $15 million–a paltry figure in today’s museum-construction boom. The Times story also reported that “New art museums, or large additions to existing ones, are being planned, built and opened in more than a dozen cities.” In Florida, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach is raising $20 million for a new wing, only a few years after raising $30 million to double its size. Museums in Tampa, Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale have also launched building campaigns.

Two major construction projects are in the works for North Carolina, and two more in Georgia, with projected costs totaling more than $150 million. And more, too, in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia, at who knows what the cost. As for what future visitors to these new or expanded museum facilities will have to look at once they’re built, that turned out to be something of a downer and not to be dealt with in any detail. There was only a brief mention of the fact that the directors of some of these expanding museums “are still uncertain what they will hang on their new walls.”

What does appear to be a certainty is that museum architecture will be freakier and freakier, for the first priority on the agenda of this boom is for a building guaranteed to cause a sensation in the media. Call it the Frank Gehry scenario. As the Times story reported, “Frank Gehry, the architect whose dazzling Guggenheim Museum turned the dreary Spanish port city of Bilbao into a worldwide tourist destination,” is clearly going to be used as a standard–not an aesthetic standard, of course, but a publicity standard. Forget architecture. Forget art, too. This is show business, where the box office is the only measure of success.

Mercifully, the Times story did contain one cautionary observation by a museum executive–Diane Lesko, the executive director of the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., which is expected to open a new $18 million building, designed by Moshe Safdie, in 2004. “I would hope every new building is being built for a reason, to fill a need, and not just for vanity,” she said. “If you do it just to pull out works in storage that are not first or even second tier, you’re not going to make it. People may come once to see the building and the display of the collection, but that’s it.” Yet there’s no reason to believe that today’s (or tomorrow’s) freaky architecture is itself to be regarded as permanent. After all, the same Times story reported that Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which was designed by Richard Meier and which opened to much acclaim in 1983, is also in the process of raising some $100 million for renovating the building, adding a new wing and so on. I thought Mr. Meier’s design of the High Museum was hopelessly inappropriate as a place for exhibiting serious works of art, especially paintings, from my very first visit–so, alas, did the High’s first director, who once burst into tears when attempting to explain to me his long list of criticisms of the building. But that’s the way it often is with trophy-museum architecture.

When you add up all these millions and millions of dollars for new museum construction and come to realize that not a dime of it will be devoted to acquiring first-rate works of art for the museums’ expanded exhibition space, you have a vivid sense of the twisted priorities that now govern museums–and not only in this country, of course. It’s a melancholy situation, and there is no sign that it’s likely to be reversed anytime soon.