The Museum Follies: Giant Expansions Of Vast Pretension

Since the new breed of directors and curators in charge of our trendiest museums like to speak of narratives-or even, God help us, narrativity-the question of the moment must be this: How are we to characterize the narrative of turbulence and disarray that has lately overtaken some of our local institutions? I suggest that we think of it as the Museum Expansion Follies, for it’s in the service of this muddled narrative that a lot of money is spent (and lost) these days without much regard for negative consequences. And not only money. In at least one case that we know of-the hapless Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum-works of art from the so-called permanent collection have been sold to help meet expenses incurred as the result of the Follies. With the Matthew Barney circus scheduled to occupy the Guggenheim’s principal space until June 11, I suppose this might be called a paintings-for-Vaseline project. Alas, “folly” may be too feeble a word to describe the narrative.

Last year the main focus of the Museum Expansion Follies was indeed the Guggenheim, which found itself obliged to acknowledge that its tomorrow-the-world ambition to become the McDonald’s of the international art scene turned out to be a financial disaster, bringing in its wake a radical cutback in the museum’s program and staff as well as the “de-accessioning” of nearly $15 million worth of art objects. This year it is, yet again, the turn of the Whitney Museum of American Art, with its shamefaced announcement canceling its latest pie-in-the-sky expansion project. This particular pie would have consisted of a new 11-story addition to the Whitney designed by Rem Koolhaas at an estimated cost of $200 million. Exactly how much money has already gone down the drain in pursuit of this folly has not been disclosed, but it’s safe to assume that Mr. Koolhaas’ services do not come cheap even for projects that are never realized.

And tomorrow, or next year-well, who knows? Among New York museums these days, those that are not already in the process of realizing some mega-expansion folly are suffering the embarrassment of having to announce the cancellation of their projected expansions, which-surprise, surprise-it has suddenly been discovered the museums can no longer afford. Moreover, to accommodate its mega-expansion in midtown Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art has had to shift its operations from Manhattan to Long Island City, which may be a boon for riders of the No. 7 subway line but is certainly a drag for everyone else. For similar reasons, the Morgan Library will this week be shutting its doors, too, for at least three years, while its $100 million expansion is under construction. Meanwhile, the Frick Collection has lost its director, and at the Brooklyn Museum there seems to be no discernible direction at all. Only the Metropolitan Museum of Art remains an oasis of stability and probity in what is otherwise a very chaotic scene.

Given the scale of this turbulence and disarray, you would expect that the situation in New York would attract some in-depth critical attention or at least some serious investigative reporting on the financial fallout as arts institutions try to cope with the general downturn in the economy. When I saw The New York Times was devoting a special section to “Museums” in its April 23 issue, I naturally expected to see these problems addressed, especially since The Times has lately made such a point of expanding arts coverage in both its daily and Sunday papers. I should have known better. Fittingly, the expanded coverage has more often than not resembled some recent museum expansions: It’s been an expansion in the quantity of verbiage devoted to the arts, unaccompanied by any improvement in quality–that is, in critical intelligence or reporting skills.

Take, as an egregious example, that special section devoted to museums. With a single exception-Fred Bernstein’s “Nuts and Bolts” summary of the logistical problems involved in the current mania for museum expansion and renovation-everything else in the section was either so soft that it evaporated upon contact, or else resembled discards from the paper’s travel section. Of investigative reporting on the institutions that have helped to make New York the art capital of the Western world, there was hardly a sign. And of anything that could be called criticism, there was nothing-unless you think that Deborah Solomon’s front-page exercise in psychobabble about “art anxiety” is art criticism, which it isn’t. What the special section on museums really amounted to, after all, was little more than an advertising supplement, and should have been identified as such. In many cases, the ads were more informative-and certainly more accurate-than the articles.

As to the particular plight of the Whitney Museum, I’m frankly relieved that it has been obliged to cancel its expansion plans. I would be even happier if this meant cancellation of its disastrous Biennial exhibitions-but that’s probably too much to hope for. The Whitney is always at its best when it has a show to offer the public that merits ample space and major support-as it does in the current exhibition of sculpture by Elie Nadelman. No expansion of the museum’s facilities would have improved that show. End of narrative.