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Another Light Box? Tod Williams&#146 and Billie Tsien&#146s Next Museum Project (and worries for those completed)

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The somber entrance of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, which may soon be enlivened with a Williams-Tsien light box.

After the American Folk Art Museum debacle, the husband-and-wife architectural team, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who designed AFAM’s now shuttered headquarters on 53rd Street in New York, urgently needed a win.

With their new Philadelphia facility for the Barnes Foundation having received substantial acclaim from leading critics (although mixed and negative reviews from others, including me), it looks like they’ve bounced back admirably.

But at the press preview for the new Barnes, Williams told a small group of reporters that he regards all his completed buildings as his “children” and he is worried about his latest offspring: He fears that limits on the Barnes’ income-producing capability, caused by restrictions on the number of visitors allowed at any one time (to prevent overcrowding), could compromise the new facility’s long-term financial viability.

Williams commented:

There won’t be that many visitors. There can’t be. They will admit only 125 visitors per hour, for a total of 250 in the galleries [at any one time].

Derek Gillman, the Barnes’ president and executive director, told me that his institution’s financial model calls for it to raise a hefty 60 percent of its estimated $14-million annual operating budget through attendance-dependent earned income—admissions, retail and restaurant sales, parking fees, etc. And while it wants to raise $100 million in endowment, it only had (as of May 16) some $30 million in hand, with another $30 million in pledges. This looks uncomfortably like a familiar but worrisome post-construction gambit: “If we build it, they’ll fund.”

In an apparent acknowledgement of this problematic strategy, Barnes vice chairman Joseph Neubauer recently said the following to an audience of about 500 members of Philadelphia’s business, political, social and civic elite (as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Stephan Salisbury):

This campus is debt free and with the biggest endowment [in Barnes history]. But—there is always a but—we have to raise more money.

The Barnes isn’t the only one of Williams’ “children” that he’s worried about. He’s been trying to learn the likely fate (alteration? gut renovation? demolition?) of his ex-American Folk Art building, purchased last summer by the adjoining, land-grabbing Museum of Modern Art:

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American Folk Art Museum (with red banner) on the last day that its Williams/Tsien-designed 53rd Street building was open to the public

Williams said that he had contacted Hines, the developer for the planned Jean Nouvel-designed tower, which is to rise on the vacant lot to the left of AFAM in the above photo, and would contain a new MoMA addition at its base. “The developer said it would just as soon tear it [AFAM] down, but MoMA hasn’t told them yet [what it wants to do],” Williams told us.

Responding to my query about this, a MoMA spokesperson said that the fate of the folk art museum’s former building “is still TBD [to be determined].” George Lancaster, a spokesperson for Hines, told me: “We do not own the folk-art space and it’s not part of the tower project.”

While this is being sorted out, let’s move on to some upbeat Williams-Tsien news—their new museum project, still being designed, which I learned all about while visiting the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, for my recent Wall Street Journal articleBecoming Jackson Pollock.

Michael Taylor, the Hood’s energetic new director, helped choose Williams and Tsien to design his museum’s planned expansion, to open in Spring 2015. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s former curator of modern art (who told me he was an “outlier” at that institution, because he opposed the Barnes’ move to Philadelphia) told me that he didn’t know the architects during their time in Philadelphia, “although I did admire their work for the Barnes, which seemed to me to be a rather elegant, [Louis] Kahn-like solution to the problem of how to re-do the Paul Cret building [the Barnes’ original home in Merion, PA] for the 21st century.

Taylor added:

What really drew me to their work was their additions to the Phoenix Art Museum, which I think are superb, and the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. Seeing the latter blew me away, since I saw how they could transform the Hood Museum’s entrance, while the former gave me a sense of what our new galleries could look like.

Williams and Tsien will renovate Dartmouth’s Wilson Hall, the college’s original museum, which is adjacent to the Hood’s 1985 building. They will also design an addition to the Hood’s current building.

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Wilson Hall

The goal of this capital project, according to the museum’s announcement, is “to significantly increase the museum’s gallery space and classrooms, and feature new entrance facilities and amenities.” Also planned: an attention-getting entrance, which may include an overhead light box (shades of the Barnes). This is part of a burgeoning Dartmouth arts campus, which also includes the Hopkins Center for the Arts (performing arts) and the in-construction Black Family Visual Arts Center.

But don’t just listen to me. Here’s director Michael Taylor to give us the lay of the land, in a CultureGrrl Video shot outside the soon-to-be renovated entrance to his growing institution:

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