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NY Times Watch: Kimmelman on Hoving; Pogrebin on the Museum Building Bust

Rendering of St. Louis Art Museum’s planned David Chipperfield-designed expansion

In Saturday’s NY Times, Michael Kimmelman provided a needed
critical appraisal of the late Thomas Hoving‘s professional accomplishments and missteps. (For the record, though, Hoving acquired for the Met the Harry G.C. Packard Collection of Japanese art, not “David” (sic) Packard’s collection.)

For Kimmelman’s earlier
and more unsparingly critical look at Hoving’s tenure at the
Metropolitan Museum, read his 1993 review of the former Met director’s book about his years there—“Making the Mummies Dance.”

There’s much of interest in Robin Pogrebin‘s article, In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better, also in Saturday’s NY Times. But by focusing on the “irrational exuberance” of museum expansions (shouldn’t we have retired that phrase with Alan Greenspan?), she ignores many beneficial and successfully realized projects (like this one), as well as those that are still going forward. There are two sides to this story and, like the economy, museum building plans are beginning to show some signs of renewed life. By the time the Times identifies a trend, that trend is often nearly played out.

There’s nothing irresponsible or blameworthy about the temporary delay of some expansions (including that of the David Chipperfield-designed facility for the St. Louis Art Museum, discussed in this post and its accompanying CultureGrrl Video). Slowing things down is the obvious, prudent response to an economic downturn that no museum officials could have foreseen (unless they were Alan Greenspan). But such caution doesn’t negate the potential benefits or even the future financial viability of those projects.

In fact, some delayed expansions are expected to move forward soon, St. Louis’ among them. The Clark Art Institute hopes to break ground this spring on its Tadao Ando-designed expansion (unless protesting neighbors create new delays). The Barnes Foundation’s planned Philadelphia project has (alas) recently broken ground and trees. And the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, while postponing the renovation of the former department store at the western end of its property, has engaged Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to rethink its campus. There are signs of life in the moribund museum building boom.

There are some peculiarities in Robin’s piece. For example, she identifies Terence Riley as “a former head of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture
and design, who helped oversee that museum’s renovation by Yoshio Taniguchi” (not to mention his major MoMA expansion, unmentioned in this article). But Pogrebin doesn’t identify Terry by his most recent position, from which he has just resigned—director of the Miami Art Museum.

Riley’s departure from MAM came immediately after that museum made public its Herzog & de Meuron design for its planned new building—a development that should also have been examined by Robin but was not mentioned. We can only wonder whether Riley’s criticism of museums’ motivations for expansion was implicitly directed at the institution he just left: “In many cases,” Terry told Robin, “it’s almost as though money drove the decision [to build new facilities].”

Also unmentioned by Robin was the American Folk Art Museum’s construction-related financial mess, reported on Wednesday by Jeremy Cooke in Bloomberg. It is possible that AFAM, which was to have sold its air rights to the MoMA Monster, may have been adversely affected by that project’s delay and the developer’s reduced need for air rights after the City Council mandated a 200-foot reduction in height for the Jean Nouvel-designed tower. Whatever the cause, AFAM is having difficulty meeting its payment obligations on bonds issued by New York’s Trust for Cultural Resources for the museum’s new 2001 facility designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the same architects who are designing the Barnes’ new building.

Bloomberg reports that “the loan [from the bonds] is secured by the museum’s property and a pledge
of its gross revenue, financial statements filed in July show.” That seems to suggest that if its financial situation doesn’t improve soon, the institution’s survival in that building could be in great jeopardy.

Nevertheless, museum expansion isn’t an evil to be avoided, as Robin’s article seems to suggest. It just needs to be done for the right reasons and with a secure financial underpinning. That means not only knowing in advance where the necessary construction money is coming from, but also amassing the endowment funds required to cover the increased operating costs of the expanded facility. If you don’t know where that money is coming from, you need to delay the project. There’s nothing wrong with that.

What IS wrong is gambling, as did the Cleveland Museum, that if you build it, they will fund. Cleveland’s successful quest for court permission to raid restricted acquisition funds to bankroll its costly expansion belonged in Pogrebin’s piece, but was unmentioned. In fact, that highly problematic gambit has, strangely, been a non-story in the get-it-first-or-forget-it NY Times.

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