A few weeks ago, Artnews’ feature on Gary Tinterow discussed the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s plans to build a new wing for modern and contemporary art, at a cost of $250 to $300 million. The museum has announced the project’s architect, Steven Holl, but has not yet made a case for the expansion publicly. So, it remains an open question: is a $300 million-expansion the best way to support the museum’s mission?
The question is timely, not just in terms of Houston and the MFAH, but also because the boards and staffs of museums seem ready to engage in a larger discussion about the cultural building boom of the 1990s and 2000s. We’re finally coming up for air after the heady days of the Bilbao Effect and the long night of the financial meltdown. The single biggest step forward in the conversation about museum expansions is the recently released “Set in Stone,” a report by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. The report provides a comprehensive look at the past two decades of cultural building projects in the United States.
What the new research says about museum building projects
Prior to this study, conversations about the wisdom of building a new wing on an existing museum or renovating an old performing arts center had to be based primarily on anecdotal evidence. Now, the study officially christens the period from 1994 to 2008 as a cultural building boom in the US, a boom led by smaller cities in the South and correlated with population growth as well as increases in education and wealth. This characterizes Texas’s larger cities perfectly, so it’s no surprise that the Metropolitan Statistical Areas centered around Austin and Dallas show up as important examples in the study. The study found eight projects in Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos together costing a total of over $190 million, and 13 projects in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington together costing just under $440 million. Of course, per-capita that’s a lot more dollars spent in Austin—about $90 per person in the metroplex and nearly twice as much (about $170 per person) in the greater Austin area. This is consistent with the study’s conclusions: Austin has been growing faster and getting smarter and richer more quickly than Dallas. Compared to Dallas, Austin also started off with fewer and less-well equipped facilities—it needed to play more “catch up.”
In addition to providing a big picture view, “Set in Stone” assembles more granular data from in-depth studies of a sample of 56 capital projects. This analysis aims to identify patterns in the processes and outcomes of such projects. Nineteen of the organizations were classified as museums, with the rest being theaters and performing arts centers. The information here is particularly useful to arts professionals and supporters as they take stock of the field and prepare to thrive in a new, more Spartan era.
The big takeaway for art institutions considering a building project is that organizations have consistently underestimated the costs of both the project itself and operating the new facility after the project is completed, AND they have consistently overestimated the revenues that the new facility will enable. As well, the study threw into doubt the idea “if you build it, they will come,” suggesting that bigger, better facilities did not consistently drive up attendance and membership. With regard to museums in particular, the study’s authors make a number of significant assertions about the motivations, processes and outcomes of their building projects:
Motivation: Researchers found it difficult to identify whether the motivation to build primarily grew out of the organization’s artistic mission, or rather, if the driving force behind the project was to make “an architectural statement related to the prestige of the institution or the civic pride of the community.”
Process: Intense debates over architectural designs—museums went through an average of ten—lengthened the planning process, which lasted nine years on average. In addition, “meddlesome” boards sometimes complicated the planning process and these boards often experienced a high rate of turnover due to infighting over leadership and control.
Budget: On average, projects ran 46% over budget, almost always due to architectural additions that were “not vital to the project’s success.” Rather, these additions came with the territory of working with a star architect.
Outcomes: Museums that experienced financial difficulty were unable to increase revenues, and responded by cutting staff, programming and hours, and relying more heavily on their permanent collections.
What this means for the MFAH’s proposed expansion
You can bet that the staff at the MFAH is talking about the results of this study. When I called the press office to ask a couple of questions, Mary Haus, the director of marketing and communications, mentioned it unprompted. She emphasized that the museum is only in the concept phase of the proposed project, and that there are more questions than answers at this point. In addition to adding exhibition space, the museum is assessing the needs of its education and conservation departments, thinking about how the space could service its film and lecture program, and contemplating improved visitor amenities like restaurants and public spaces. Consistent with the museums studied in “Set in Stone,” the MFAH is also interested in making an architectural statement. Mary elaborates, “beyond addressing the needs of the museum’s own audiences, a major goal of the proposed campus redevelopment project is to ensure that however it takes shape, it should unify and enhance the urban—in particular the pedestrian—experience of the museum district.” The upshot? The museum has yet to make a strong case that a new building is the best way to support its mission.
This doesn’t mean the case isn’t there. Here are a couple of things that could be part of the case:
The collection: On a good day, big U.S. museums like the MFAH have maybe 5% of their collection on view. The MFAH usually has about 2,500 objects on view out of a collection of 60,000. More exhibition space could mean more of the collection available to the public more of the time.
The modern and contemporary: Late modern and contemporary artists have produced some really massive art—vast, tall canvases and gallery-sized installations. The kinds of exhibition spaces best suited for these types of work are different than those suited to the smaller paintings and sculptures that preceded them. The MFAH may find its current galleries inadequate for some of its collection or the exhibitions to which it aspires.
The audience and demand: This is where the museum needs to be careful. Museums have tended to imagine that a bigger and cooler facility will draw more locals and more tourists, and it’s tempting to overestimate these effects. Perhaps the example of others will lead the MFAH to be more conservative in its projections here.
Other revenues: Some of the MFAH’s new building, like the proposed restaurant, will clearly be devoted to producing “earned income.” Again, museums are wont to overestimate the revenues that new facilities can produce. Hopefully, the MFAH won’t let aggressive revenue projections cloud its vision.
Architectural statement: The MFAH is a blockbuster museum. It seeks to bring in big crowds with high-profile exhibitions, and to provide Houston with access to a collection that includes all the big names on the international circuit. An architectural statement is a way of signifying to the world that you’re that kind of museum. It’s a matter of pride for the museum’s board and its members, for the city’s big players in government and business, and maybe even for its residents. There’s no conclusive evidence about the long-term economic effects of these kinds of projects, but it’s certainly true that the “pedestrian experience” offered by the Houston Museum District is barren, a bunch of towering slabs of concrete.
Is a high-profile architectural project the best way to support the MFAH’s mission and make Houston a great city for the arts? I can’t fathom how far $300 million would go in the hands of Aurora Picture Show, the CAMH, DiverseWorks, Project Row Houses, Skydive, or even towards programming at the MFAH itself… But before we judge the project, we have to accept the MFAH on its own terms. It is focused on providing Houstonites access to the international art world. Its peers are other big museums in other big cities, first, and other regional institutions, second. The MFAH seeks to be a flagship, a signifier of Houston’s worldliness and culture, it seeks to attract large audiences and to preserve canonical objects. The building project must be judged on these terms. Then, we can ask the right questions—is there a genuine, mission-driven need for an expansion of some kind? Is every aspect of the project the best use of funding available? What do other, similar projects tell us about the likely costs that will accrue? The realities of the recession will certainly cause some institutions to do capital projects differently than we’ve seen over the past twenty years. Hopefully, the MFAH will be one of them.
Claire Ruud has an M.A. in art history from The University of Texas at Austin and is pursuing an M.B.A. at The Yale University School of Management. She thinks a lot about feminism, queer theory and financing contemporary art production.