This summer the MFAH unveiled the first half of its $450 million campus expansion.
Here are some things you could do with $450 million dollars:
- Buy Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.
- Build Millennium Park.
- Build 3 Broad Museums.
- Build 7 Modern Art Museums of Fort Worth.
- Pay for 13 years of operating budget of the Dallas Museum of Art.
- Pay for 42 years of operating budget of the McNay Art Museum.
- Commission 45 artists to make $10 million works of art.
- Commission 450 artists to make $1 million works of art.
- Give $50,000 a year for 30 years to 300 artists.
Another thing you could do, if you’re an institution located in Houston, is to forget everything you know about what museums are and always have been — stop thinking like you’re a museum in the 20th century on the island of Manhattan — and look at a map of greater Houston. Houston is not a city. Houston is a region, one that encompasses over 10,000 square miles. Its 9 counties are almost as large as the state of Massachusetts.
With nearly half a billion dollars to spend, you could do wonderful and unexpected things to give Houstonians extraordinary art experiences. Unfortunately, the MFAH has elected to follow the road more travelled and scrape the local coffers to heave up yet another starchitect museum behemoth.
First announced in 2002 by the late director Peter Marzio, the centerpiece of the MFAH’s expansion was always meant to be a new building for modern and contemporary art. In the intervening years, this plan was expanded to include a new Glassell School of Art, which would double the size of the previous building, as well as a conservation lab.
Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the new Glassell School building opened this summer. The MFAH’s modern and contemporary building is slated to open in 2020.
The form of the new Glassell School building is big, intimidating and impressive. God knows how many tons of heavy concrete make up its hulking walls and grand staircase hangout areas (now a de rigeur element of any “academic” building). There is no doubt about what this building conveys, and what it conveys is authority. Forget the fact that the Glassell School is a fancy Art League. With very few exceptions, the school is not for serious artists; it’s for people who enjoy art and have the money to take expensive classes as a hobby. The museum understands this and runs it as a profit center, hence the hustle to get the new school building up and running in time for the start of the fall semester.
I have no major qualms with the Glassell building itself — it feels polished and pricey and spacious and exactly as you would expect something of its budget on a museum campus today to feel. (The outdoor spaces are another matter: one local architect privately described the plaza in front of the building as a “prison yard,” and its expanse of hard surface certainly bakes in the Houston summer sun. I can only imagine how, once the sycamore trees have grown in, visitors in July and August might huddle sweatily under their small patch of shade. I am also mystified as to why the MFAH felt the need to haul the massive granite Eduardo Chillida sculpture from its verdant spot on the other end of campus in front of the new building, for a matchey-matchey effect that almost camouflages the piece.)
But the main issue with the new MFAH campus is not whether or not the buildings or gardens themselves succeed, it’s whether this was the the best strategy for the museum to pursue at all. Imagine if the MFAH had lived up to the bootstrapping spirit of this crazy swamp and done something really radical. Imagine if, instead of doing the same thing that’s been done everywhere else (to unsurprisingly muted national response), they had demonstrated some vision, forged a new path for museums, and changed the world.
At the press preview for the Glassell building this past May, MFAH director Gary Tinterow said that Houston art organizations would be invited to present their programming at the new MFAH campus, and it would be “the center of artistic activity in Houston.” Aside from the dubious idea that an institution like the MFAH is going to foment a grassroots arts scene, there’s a more central problem with Tinterow’s claim: Houston has no center.
The prophet for the future of Houston is a Rice University professor named Stephen Klineberg. For more than 30 years, Klineberg has run demographic studies of Houston and is the single most lucid translator of what this city is, and what we can be.
“Houston was built on a crummy little bayou, 50 miles from any natural barrier in any direction, no mountains, no rivers, no forest, a developer’s dream: built by, for and behalf of the automobile, made possible by air conditioning, and we spread everywhere. We have built a civilization totally predicated on the automobile.” – Stephen Klineberg
Kind of repulsive, right? Well, it’s only repulsive if your idea of a city is a densely packed area with extensive public transportation. Houston is another model of a city, one that needs new ideas about what museums can be.
I spoke with a local patron off the record about the MFAH recently, and they said that Tinterow faces a problem, which (as this person described it) is that he could do a Toulouse-Lautrec show and nobody would come. “If he were in New York,” this person said, “that show would be packed, but not here. The problem is Houston.”
But Houston isn’t the problem. Houston is the opportunity. And once again, the MFAH — the second-richest museum in the country — has blown an opportunity to conceive of a grand and innovative strategy worthy of this city, to meaningfully connect Houston audiences with art. True, I don’t think people in greater Houston are going to get fired up enough about a Toulouse-Lautrec show to schlep in to see it. But that’s not because Houstonians are rubes. No, the main reason Houstonians won’t schlep in is this:
What I am getting at, of course, is the idea of the decentralized museum. Other museums are starting to kick this notion around; in a recent interview, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, stated, “I can envision a future where we double the size of LACMA over time, but it’s in other communities and in other parts of L.A. during my next 10 years.” (Of course, Govan has his hands full in the meantime trying to raise $1 billion for the new LACMA campus on Wilshire Blvd.)
A decentralized museum, in which outposts are created in different areas of town, or even a nimble mobile unit is developed for bringing art to people, or crowd-pleasing immersive “art,” the likes of which the MFAH mounts every summer, could be presented in temporary spaces, and would solve the problems of the museum-going experience today, namely cost, crowds and commute or travel time.
It isn’t grand, and it may not appeal to donors, and it starts to sound like Creative Time, but if you’ve already abandoned the museum’s traditional role of repository and protector of objects from our global cultural heritage, it would better serve the new role of museum-as-amusement-park serving vast crowds of people. Of course, the numbers suggest that museum attendance is declining, a fact that must have sent cold shivers down the spines of trustees and directors throughout the country. Once they made audience size the metric for a their success, museums were wedded to maximizing audience size to be considered successful — which means they have to physically be able to attract and accommodate huge audiences of customers. Which means costly infrastructure.
But what is the endpoint of all this audience-jamming? At which point do we say that the number of people in a museum are destroying the experience? At which point do we admit that this isn’t fun anymore?
If you live in a suburban Houston neighborhood, how invested will you be in the idea of driving 30 or 45 minutes (or an hour) in to see something at the MFAH? What if, rather than the “if you build it they will come” strategy, the MFAH (and other major museums in major Western cities) embraced a more expansive, generous, radical idea of bringing extraordinary art experiences to you? What if the MFAH looked at a map of Houston and considered how best to reach that vast region? The answer might not be a big, impressive 20th-century idea of a museum. It might be even harder to raise money for than the more obvious path the MFAH has pursued. But this path might forever change the way museums operate in the megaopolis city-regions of the future.