The City as Canvas: Bored With Models and Drawing, Museums Turn Artists and Designers Loose on the Streets

The New Museum takes it to the streets. (Urban Omnibus)

Still, this doesn’t fully explain why museums are creating plans, not simply cataloguing them, as had been their wont in the past. Bruce Altshuler, director of N.Y.U.’s museum studies program and the former director of the Noguchi, sees this new interest as an outgrowth of two major movements from the past two decades, one American, the other European.

The U.S. gave us an emphasis on museums being not just places in which to view art but also venues in which to consume other forms of culture, maybe even a five-star meal. The museum as community center, tourist attraction, civic commodity. As Ms. Heiss put it, “People don’t simply want to go to the museum to look at art anymore.” The other driving force, from Europe, is what could be called biennialism, the desire not only to showcase art but to commission it, to be a cultural creator, not just a cultural cataloguer.

“I think urbanism is a natural interest coming out of these influences,” Mr. Altshuler said. “It relates to communities in the social concerns and it even relates to the arts, through architecture. And there is no more permanent cultural change than influencing the city.”

Mr. Bergdoll puts a good deal of blame on the rise of starchitecture, which it should be said museums (along with the media) are largely responsible for the creation, promotion and consumption of. “The Starchitect phenomenon effectively hid from view for a while the diminishing role of architects in shaping and defining the daily environment outside museums and the commercial sector,” he said. Now, he and his colleagues hope the win some of that back.

There is also the simple fact of competition—if one museum starts doing something, so must others. And they must do it bigger, and better.

Yet the simplest explanation for this newfound interest in cities is that they are where the cultural consumer, the museumgoer, indeed the world, now finds itself. At some point in 2008, more humans began residing in cities than outside of them, making questions of urban sustainability more crucial than ever. Think of these shows as gentrification come full-circle. The artists made the cities safe for everyone else, and now it has finally filtered up to the museums themselves. Museums have a stake, as well. A safer city means more patrons means more tickets and gift shop receipts. Indeed, many of New York’s cultural institutions are enjoying record attendance.