I always find it curious when art institutions decide to go into ambitious building programs. Typically the reasoning is the same: to offer a space in which the public is invited to enjoy the works of art in the collection, or the exhibitions produced specifically for the space. Either way, it always seems as though these expanding institutions are operating with the visitor, and the visitor experience at the forefront of their expansion projects. Fast forward a few years after multiple fundraising campaigns, an exhausted staff, an overworked executive director, a new strategic plan, and a new public oriented mission, and you have a massive new structure for the experiencing and exhibiting of art. Somewhere along the way, however, a disconnect occurred, and to use the example of Arthouse in Austin, this public/visitor centered space didn’t exactly turn out to be what it was intended, and as a result you end up with visitors confused about where the front door is, and instead walking into the glass façade. Design features that create physical hazards aren’t exactly visitor friendly. (I witnessed many children run smack into the glass on multiple occasions during my tenure there.)
When I visit a newly constructed museum I always think of these things. With a shift occurring in the museum world to focus on being more visitor friendly, it’s dumbfounding to witness these constructions pop up that are really just the vision of a handful of people and don’t actually have the public in mind. The excuse of building a new structure meant to house exhibitions of art for the public really just becomes a fundraising ruse. How is it possible that an art institution is thinking about its public when it’s design is physically treacherous?
With these things in mind I went trekking to the Museo Soumaya in the Polanco neighborhood. The Soumaya is the museum built by Carlos Slim, the owner of all telecommunications in Mexico, and one of the richest men in the entire world. The Soumaya was built to house his family’s personal collection, and was designed by Carlos Slim’s nephew Fernando Romero. I think it would have been best if they had just kept it all in one of their homes. It goes without saying that this visit was also premeditated given my recent posts about Mexic-Arte Museum and its pending building project (here and here). However, once I was at the Soumaya, the logistical and institutional fears of Mexic-Arte’s building project gave way to a whole other set of concerns which highlighted the clear disconnect between the architect, the museum, and the general public, which then opened the door for an even greater fear as Mexic-Arte proceeds into its period of expansion. Will this disconnect happen again in Austin?
Honestly, the Soumaya building itself is impressive. It feels reptilian. It scales up into the sky, reflecting its surrounding skyline. The front door was easy to find with the obvious positioning of a massive stairway from the sidewalk right up to the door. But once I walked in everything else was maddening and the obstacles just kept stacking up. The small doorway opened up into a cavernous, pristinely white atrium at least three times the size of the Blanton which had two randomly placed casts: Rodin’s The Thinker, and a copy of the Laocoön Group. Meanwhile my eyes took a number of minutes to adjust because the fluorescent lighting that ran the perimeter of the ceiling mixed with the generic office lighting in the center of the ceiling was bouncing off the white walls, and the white marble floors. The result was like some strange snow-blindness, I had to stop and resist gravity for just a second.
From the atrium the visitor is expected to see the grand staircase on the left side and proceed up (or find the elevator, good luck). Normally this wouldn’t be an issue considering a grand staircase is fairly self-explanatory. However, the grand staircase is white, and each step blends in with the next. Without anti-slip strips it’s hard to distinguish one step from the next, especially on the descent. Simply put: it’s just plain dangerous.
The galleries were even more frustrating. Paintings were hung with their backs exposed, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the installation whatsoever (I turned a corner and found JESUS!), and at one point as I suddenly realized that I was walking up a ramp that came out of nowhere, and then took me to another level with another hodgepodge of stuff. There were a handful of nice things amongst the silver spoon cases and strange landscapes, but overall everything was so crammed in the space, so badly lit with standard office lighting that the whole collection left me feeling like I had just walked into a rich person’s cabinet of curiosities. Actually I think I would have appreciated a cabinet of curiosities much more. To say that this visit was frustrating as a whole is an understatement. I opted to take the stairs down…verrrrry slowly, gripping the handrail the entire way down, and 52 or so stairs later (it’s a GRAND staircase) as I went looking for the washroom I nearly walked into the men’s. So, scratch the aforementioned thought: it was not a frustrating experience, it was an embarrassing one.
With all the research that exists, and with all the resources the Soumaya has, what’s most frustrating is that there is no attempt to breach the gap between the architecture, the collection, and the public. The building feels like it was just thrown up and kinda filled with stuff. Even the gallery spaces are small and incredibly disappointing. It feels like it would be best if the public actually stayed outside of the building and just stared at it for a few hours before going to the Costco next door.