Theater journal has just published my review of Peter Frumkin and Ana Kolendo’s book on cultural construction projects: Building for the Arts: The Strategic Design of Cultural Facilities (University of Chicago Press: 2014). Here’s the opening excerpt. The full review is available for download (pdf format).
Although architecture may appear to be rooted in pragmatism, it is a powerful and extraordinarily revealing expression of human psychology. . . . It also reflects the ambitions and insecurities and motivations of those who build; because of that, it offers a faithful reflection of the nature of power, its strategies, its consolations, and its impact on those who wield it.
— Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex
Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendencies which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs, and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.
— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
Architect and urban planner Daniel Hudson Burnham famously said (or was later paraphrased to say): “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” As the force behind such civic megaspaces as the city of Chicago and Washington, DC’s National Mall, as well as Union Stations in Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, and El Paso, Burnham knew about big plans. In Building for the Arts: The Strategic Design of Cultural Facilities, we see in sometimes tragic detail why cultural facility projects must be big to attract attention, funding, and favor, and why they are so difficult to control once the blood is stirred.
A curious tension runs through Peter Frumkin and Ana Kolendo’s strategy guide for cultural construction. It springs from the yearning for order and reason the authors bring to the subject, and that readers will likely bring as well, set against the relentless evidence of power, politics, wealth, and happenstance delivered by each richly written case study. The text speaks confidently about strategic alignment, but the subtext swirls with dramatic irony.
To be fair, much of this curious tension comes from the complex intersection where the book’s subject lives. Planning, funding, building, and operating new or expanded arts facilities combine urban planning and architecture, sociology and psychology, economics and acoustics, politics and power, all at a significant scale and intensity among players who generally have not had a rehearsal before the show. All in all, Building for the Arts makes a solid contribution to understanding this highly complex work, even if it forces the strategy frameworks from time to time.
A 1994 “National Cultural Facilities Study” by the Nonprofit Facilities Fund (now the Nonprofit Finance Fund) first captured many of the dynamics described here, concluding that:
while arts organizations operate under tremendous constraints, they frequently undertake projects in ways that contribute directly to their problems. And despite lessons to be learned from such experiences, the field as a whole lacks a mechanism to do so. Among the prevalent practices:
- Arts managers are often entrepreneurial, willing to take risks and most have a flair for drama. They seldom approach facility projects with the idea of incremental growth as a guiding principle.
- Arts managers work in a highly competitive environment. They undertake their projects in isolation and lack (or avoid) advisors who question assumptions, challenge myths or share information learned from other projects.
- Arts managers lack “early money,” so they tend to commit to a project prematurely in order to spur fundraising. The process is turned around: it not only skips planning, but makes it difficult or impossible to back down from an early mistake.
- Because fundraising is fluid and often runs concurrent with construction, decisions about projects are made out of context and in free-fall, spurred by momentary fundraising successes and uncontested by solid planning.
Twenty years later, Building for the Arts reaches many of the same conclusions, offers deeper details, and strives to bridge some of the communication gaps, all with strikingly larger lessons to draw from. The Nonprofit Facilities Fund’s 1994 study gathered ninety-three projects costing a grand total of $635 million among them. That amount would not cover the two largest projects in this book — the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas and the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago — and would be a drop in the bucket of the cultural construction boom that was yet to come.
According to Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities, 1994 – 2008, the report of the study from which this new book evolved, there were some 725 significant cultural facility projects in the United States between 1994 and 2008, with a total construction cost of around $16 billion. The average cost of these projects was $21 million, and the median cost was $11 million, suggesting a number of large projects in the mix. This scale of construction makes them civic projects rather than just organizational projects, demanding input, support, and authorization from a wide array of stakeholders. And the bold funding requirements lead them to animate and activate their community’s network of wealth and power — for good and for ill.
[ download the full book review from Theater (pdf format) ]