Art Museum Expansion: A Constructive Trend?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

All around the world, and right across this continent, art museums are launching or planning expansions, attracting larger crowds and greater attention than ever before. From the august Prado in Madrid and the Uffizi in Florence to museums in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Richmond, Seattle, Toronto, Vienna -- you hardly need to skip a letter in an A to Z of notable cities -- institutions are bigger than ever before, or on the way to getting bigger. More art will be seen by more people in more space.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! We chortle in our joy.

Or possibly not.

Begin to tally up the progress all this represents, and the hidden cons start rivaling the obvious pros.

The newly expanded museums offer more galleries to walk than most feet could ever bear and more art to see than most of us could ever take in. Or might want to: Often, the new galleries are filled with less than stellar works that once lived happily in storage. But even that's not so much of a problem, because the crowds drawn to these new tourist attractions can keep anyone from seeing much of anything, anyway -- let alone communing with a masterpiece.

The classic museum experience -- quiet moments spent surrounded by the most carefully chosen works in the most serene of atmospheres -- may be in danger of extinction.

For decades, the Museum of Modern Art in New York was one of the best-loved and most impressive of American art institutions: It had 85,000 square feet of gallery space, showing off about 1,000 wonderful works to as many as 11,000 people on a single day. That wasn't enough. Since its expansion in 2004, MoMA has grown to show 50 percent more works in a building almost twice as big, packed one record day with almost double the visitors. Still not big enough: MoMA has now announced plans to grow again, adding all kinds of new galleries in a 60,000-square-foot space in a development next door.

The Tate Modern in London didn't even exist a decade ago. Now it's one of the biggest and most popular art museums on the planet. It drew a mob of 4 million people last year -- in a space planned for half that many. It is so massive no one had imagined it would ever overflow. But the crowds have led to recently announced enlargement plans: A wild new wing, looking like some kind of crystal dropped from outer space, is due to absorb some of those people.

But even when these impressive, pricey expansions are at their best -- and the Tate and MoMA clearly count as that -- they can come with side effects: They can force boards and managers to put growth, funding and raw attendance numbers ahead of little things such as acquiring and taking care of art, or helping a visitor get something out of it.

To fill and fund the new buildings, museums can become addicted to crowd-pleasing blockbuster exhibitions. Smaller and maybe smarter shows, with the potential to teach us to love something other than Monet and mummies, can get elbowed off the calendar. And the permanent collection becomes at best a poor stepchild.

Splashy, attention-getting buildings can start to matter more than what goes on inside them; curators complain that architectural splash can actually make it harder to present the art or take it in. When the Bellevue Arts Museum opened a wild new building in suburban Seattle in 2001, trustees found they'd been saddled with a structure ill-suited to the more conservative art their public wanted to see. They shut it down after just three years, reconfigured its insides and reopened with a new mandate to show craft and design. Many of the resource-draining new additions aren't even meant for showing art -- they're all about making room for bigger, more profitable shops and cafes and other non-art options for the visitor.

Even with such new "profit centers" coming online, it's become almost commonplace to hear that a recently expanded museum has had to lay off staff to pay its ballooning expenses.

The most obvious winners in all this are the patrons who get their names on the expansions, the architects who get to design them, the directors who get to put the projects on their resumes and the mayors who rake in the tourist dollars. Your ordinary art lover may not do as well.

"Museum elephantiasis" was the diagnosis of Deyan Sudjic, curator of the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale -- and now the director of London's Design Museum, which happens to be planning its own expansion -- describing it as epidemic in museums everywhere. He's not alone in this view. Four prominent figures from four very different corners of the art world were willing to share their own prognoses with us. What follows below are condensations of their hours' worth of talk.

Yve-Alain Bois | Susanne Ghez | Philippe de Montebello | Timothy Potts

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company