By now, we've watched plenty of art museums sign up for sleek new signature buildings designed by heavyweight architects. For them, easing even the most middling collection into a dazzling carapace promises nationwide headlines -- and increased attendance.
If art museums can benefit from ties with architects, can an architecture museum profit by partnering with artists? Officials at the National Building Museum think so.
As the downtown institution battles lagging attendance and a stubbornly low profile, it's looking to make some changes. Adding a building that makes a dramatic statement is out of the question because the museum already has one: Montgomery Meigs's 1887 Pension Bureau building with its wraparound terra cotta frieze and cavernous Great Hall. Instead, the museum hopes to rustle up recognition by borrowing curatorial ideas from art museums and by showing one-of-a-kind objects -- which is what art museums do by default. These changes -- some on the horizon, some, including the opening of "Liquid Stone" on June 19, already underway -- come none to soon.
Nearly a quarter-century after Congress created it, the museum remains a niche institution. Attendance, holding steady in the low 300,000s despite post-9/11 slumps, can't touch nearby Smithsonian museums. The Air and Space Museum boasted 9.4 million visitors in 2003, the National Museum of Natural History 5.2 million for the same period. That year, the Building Museum saw just 321,281 pass through its doors. Though the government maintains the museum's historic building, the institution does not receive direct federal funding. Contributions -- from individuals, corporations, foundations, associations and public agencies -- made up more than half of the museum's 2003 budget; one-third was generated from the museum store and Great Hall rental revenue.
The museum says it draws a more sophisticated type of visitor. Unlike the mainstream masses traipsing through the Smithsonian, Building Museum visitors are architects, planners and what chief curator Howard Decker calls "the highly educated general public." Families of tourists haven't shown up because the museum is still figuring out how to attract them. Devoted to architecture, design and urban planning, the museum's curators can't easily provide one-to-one interaction with original objects. So don't expect them to wedge a skyscraper into the Great Hall -- the room is big, but it's not that big. Like other non-art museums, the institution has at times featured programming that feels like a textbook stuck to the wall, with dense paragraphs accompanied by banal photography.
What to do?
Museum Director Chase Rynd, along with Decker, have identified a strategy: Appeal, first and foremost, to the eye. Just as art institutions do. "We have to add more artist voices to our chorus," Rynd says of the Building Museum program. Rynd doesn't just mean people working in paint and canvas, though he'd like to show more of them, too. He defines "artist" as including the craftspeople who make buildings as well as the masons who cut the stone. Perhaps most important, he emphasizes that architects are artists. They create sculptures. Really, really big ones.
Artist-architects also design exhibitions. The innovative New York firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien was tapped to create an artful backdrop for nearly 30 works featured in "Liquid Stone: New Architecture in Concrete." Working in conjunction with Martin Moeller, the museum's senior vice president for special projects and the show's curator, the team promises a visual feast.
"Our goal was to create something strong yet serene," says Jennifer Turner, project architect. Visitors will negotiate fields of polished concrete and steel reinforcement bar, evoking industrial swaths of reeds. Lighting will be dramatic -- "chapel-like," according to Turner.
Visitors moving through the exhibition might think themselves in a sculpture show. The models and prototypes Moeller has selected play up concrete's versatility -- you can, after all, pour cement around almost any armature or cast it from a mold as a sculptor would. "Concrete offers unparalleled opportunities for innovation and experimentation," Moeller says. "It can also be a very beautiful material."
Decker and Rynd plan to step up commissions like the one for "Liquid Stone." Another significant move will be the inauguration of a project room. A dedicated gallery where invited architects and designers can do what they please, it will operate much like the installation rooms in art museums. Rynd hopes presenting fresh work by young creators will forge new connections with visitors.
"An engineer can be totally articulate yet still come at it from a technical point of view," the director explains. "Artists look at it from a whole different perspective. It opens another door."
It also ushers visitors in through the door. The recently closed "Masonry Variations" exhibition, the first foray in this new direction, drew more than 36,000 visitors during its five-month run, the fourth most attended show in the museum's history. The brainchild of renowned architect Stanley Tigerman, it assembled four teams of architects and craftspeople who made site-specific works illustrating the revolutionary use of masonry. The sculpted objects -- a floor-to-ceiling backlit curtain of glass, a massive gyroscope out of bricks, a half-pipe of terrazzo tile and two gray concrete stalagmites -- might easily have been mistaken for installation art.
Also on tap: projects that include yet another set of artists -- actors and dancers. A collaborative venture with the Washington Ballet will produce a "Nutcracker" set and costumes. And a plan to construct a permanent stage in the building is also under discussion.
When it comes to innovation in design and architecture, the American appetite has grown.
"We're all carrying around image banks we didn't have before," Decker explains. "The Internet and computers exploded our brains. We've become image consumers." American eyes are better educated every day, thanks to Michael Graves at Target and the ubiquity of quasi-sculptor Frank Gehry's artful buildings.
But under all the titanium cabbages and groovy teakettles, a more profound message lurks.
"Design is connected with who we are. Design and architecture signal meaning," Decker says. The tragedies of Sept. 11 underscored the significance built structures can hold.
"Those buildings were attacked because they symbolized something," the chief curator insists. The museum's job, he insists, includes making that meaning legible.