The economy is crumbling and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art just announced that it will be spending over $245 million dollars on a new 300,000 square-foot building. LACMA is hardly the only one undertaking expensive expansions these days—look at the Art Institute of Chicago, the contentious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum addition, and the Whitney’s gobsmacking $680 million dollar project. Of course, most of these plans were in place before the economy started to fall apart, but it ought to give us pause. In an effort to raise large sums of money and attract newspaper headlines, institutions are succumbing to more high-priced donor-wish fulfillment than ever, and subscribing to the same promises of infinite growth that undid the two industries primarily responsible for our recent financial straits: banking and real estate. These practices are not only unsustainable in the long term, as the banks and mortgage companies have taught us, but they also almost entirely ignore the very people who supply the work that fills their halls: artists and researchers. The bad news: many of these outsize facilities and promises have already been set in stone. The good news: there are other viable options and there’s no time like the present to start adopting them.
Compare two institutions recently in the headlines: the aforementioned Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California Academy of Sciences. LACMA proudly splashed news of its plans to go ahead with Phase II of its “Transformation” project in October. This new phase calls for the construction of an additional building to its current seven-building, twenty-acre campus. Phase I, completed in February of this year at a cost of over $150 million, brought us the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, named for major donors Eli and Edythe Broad. This new space has been consistently criticized for exhibiting work that The New York Times calls, “pricey trophies, greatest hits of the present and recent past,” all donated by the Broads.
Displaying the prizes of deep-pocketed donors is a typical part of the bargain when accepting huge sums for construction projects. The same will be true with the new building, to be named for Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who are donating $45 million in cash and $10 million in art. One has to wonder what conditions were attached to the Jeanne and Anthony Pritzker Family Foundation Parking Garage—reserved parking spaces at the very least, I should think. No major donor has come forward with an offer to maintain and staff these enormous new spaces, nor are there any who might finance the acquisition of work by early-career, lesser-known or under-represented living artists.
The California Academy of Sciences has a very different story. It has just opened the doors of its visionary and breathtaking new building—a single structure comprising a variety of different venues and exhibition halls that promises to be one of the greenest buildings in the world today. While the construction phase of the project was costly and time-consuming—over $500 million in ten years—the green, single-structure design promises to help keep major costs down over the long term. And if there are donors who sought named recognition for their generosity, you wouldn’t know it from the Academy’s floor plan, which remains, as of yet, uncluttered by the specifics of a particular brood’s generosity.
Interestingly, both the Academy and LACMA’s newest buildings (the Broad and Resnick spaces) were designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. Piano, a 71-year old Italian based in Genoa, has deposed Frank Gehry as the darling of the museum world. Piano is currently at work on the expansion of at least 5 major museums in the U.S. alone, including all of those mentioned in the first paragraph. While Piano’s full potential is on resplendent display at the Academy, LACMA’s new Resnick pavilion, which will be built primarily in travertine and glass, does not tout any specific environmentally beneficial elements. It’s difficult to imagine a more backward-looking façade. I worked in a private art museum in Washington, D.C., a few years ago that made innovative use of travertine and glass; it was designed by Philip Johnson and construction was completed in 1967, over forty years ago. New York’s own Lincoln Center is another example, also finished in the 1960s. Travertine is a very expensive material with an incredibly heavy carbon footprint; the majority of the world’s supply is mined and shipped from Italy or Turkey. And glass is a notoriously problematic building material for art museums—direct exposure to sunlight degrades paper, fades inks, paints, and furnishings, and can easily add thousands of dollars to heating and cooling costs.
The Academy’s single–though–complex structure offers a more level-headed concept to fulfill its mission and accommodate its audience, while LACMA’s multiple buildings will require more guards, more cleaners, more plant operators, more of everything to run and maintain. Can LACMA really expect that its visitor and donor base would expand enough to match these super-sized dreams? Can LACMA really say that it’s taken a hard look at how it is engaging not only the general public, but also the local arts community—most importantly, artists? The California Academy of Sciences employs actual scientists, doing actual research—they have 46 on staff, drawing salaries and benefits, with hundreds more researchers participating in their research programs. How many artists are on staff at LACMA, as working artists—not as art school interns in the marketing office? Likely none—art museums rarely manage to support the very people who produce the work hanging on their walls.
If we are to truly advance our arts and science institutions, we must spend more time nurturing and sustaining the arts and sciences as a whole, including artists and scientists themselves. And we must start structuring facilities and business models in way that will enable them to survive after what’s left of the Baby Boomers’ money dries up. The trend over the past ten years to promote ever-bigger facilities and ever-bolder promises to donors is unsustainable both fiscally and ethically; it undermines not only their goals but their very sense of purpose. It’s not too late to reverse it.