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Another Museum Boom

by Martha Hostetter, Apr 01, 2004
 Â Over the next few months, museums across the city will complete major construction projects, planned when the economic picture was sunnier and sustained in spite of the difficult fundraising environment of the past few years. The weak economy has caused some donors to reconsider their commitments, and museums such as the Guggenheim have had to put their plans on hold. But, remarkably, most projects appear to be on schedule, including expansions of established institutions like the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Morgan Library, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Brooklyn Children’s Museum and openings at the new Rubin Museum of Art and Skyscraper Museum.

Many of these projects were planned during the 1990s, when museums in New York and across the country rode a wave of unprecedented popularity. Visitors flocked to big-name shows, to extended hours and added programming like movies, concerts, and dance parties, and to retail stores and cafes. More than just temples to art, museums became social destinations and community centers, places to hang out with the kids or meet a date. With the help of upgraded, visitor-friendly facilities and innovative designs, museums are hoping to build on this legacy well into the 21st century.

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Brooklyn’s Front Stoop

Though the Brooklyn Museum of Art never shut its doors during its multi-phase renovation, it has planned a celebration this month to inaugurate what its director, Arnold Lehman, refers to as “Brooklyn’s greatest front stoop”--the museum’s new entrance and public plaza.

The museum has long had an image problem. The 1893 building was intended to face Washington Avenue, where the architecture team of McKim, Mead, and White had envisioned a hemispherical entrance. This plan was never realized, and the Washington Avenue side is now the museum’s parking lot and rear entrance. Along Eastern Parkway, the museum’s main entrance, there was once a massive staircase--twice the height of the stairs in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- that took visitors to the third floor. The staircase was removed in 1934 to provide easier access to the building, leaving behind an unwelcoming Beaux Arts façade.

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The new entrance is designed to lend the building a sense of openness and transparency--its glass and steel design providing a window into the artwork and the people inside. A sheer-glass pavilion leads to the main lobby, and an elevated promenade provides views into the museum and around the neighborhood. The modern design won unanimous support from the city’s Landmarks Commission, Lehman says, because it builds on the original plan: the stepped-glass pavilion recalls the old stairway, and the hemispherical entrance echoes the architects’ unrealized design.

The 80,000-square-foot plaza in front of the museum, once bisected by a driveway, has been reclaimed as public space. Five hundred people can sit on the curved, wooden steps--the “front stoop”--to watch outdoor performances or enjoy the new fountains, designed by the same showmen that created the spectacular water show outside the Bellagio Casino, in Las Vegas.

The museum is using the reopening to show off its rich artistic community. In Open House: Working in Brooklyn -- the first comprehensive survey of the borough’s arts scene -- emerging and established artists will show painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, film, and installations, and accompanying performances will feature local dance, music, and poetry.

New Museums Open Downtown

Also this month, the Skyscraper Museum will open in its first permanent location, on the ground floor of a 38-story tower in Battery Park City. Designed by Roger Duffy of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the museum is one of the first signs of downtown’s cultural renaissance. The museum has held temporary exhibits since 1996 (its curators helped to create the viewing walls around Ground Zero, which depict the towers’ history). But it now has a chance to take on an important role as interpreter of New York’s history as a “vertical metropolis,” and as a participant in the ongoing debate among architects, engineers, builders, and the public about the safety and ethics of skyscrapers.

Later this year, the Rubin Museum of Art will open its doors in Chelsea, on the site of an old Barney’s department store. This new museum is the product of one couple’s passion for a culture that will be unfamiliar to most art lovers. Donald Rubin, who made a fortune in managed care, and his wife, Shelley, collected art from the Himalayan region (Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal) for 25 years. When they couldn’t find the right museum for their collection, they decided to create their own.

Public Works in Tough Times

How did these institutions sustain major capital campaigns during one of the toughest fundraising climates in decades? Part of the answer may be that buildings have inherent populist appeal. Public buildings -- particularly architecturally notable ones -- can be a source of pride for individuals, corporations, and cities. To raise spirits and generate jobs great public works are often built during tough financial times; the National Gallery of Art was built during the Depression. “It’s easier to raise money for a building than a show,” Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim, told a New York Times reporter in 2002. “A building is permanent.”

Another reason is that City Hall, and perhaps corporate and individual donors as well, have come to accept what reams of research has shown: culture fuels the local economy. According to a study by the advocacy group Alliance for the Arts, capital spending on construction by nonprofits from 1992 to 2002 totaled $2.4 billion. One-quarter of the funding for capital construction came from the city, and this investment helped to leverage private and other government funds by a ratio of three to one. In 1997, thanks to a change in policy, the Department of Cultural Affairs was able to make donations for capital projects to any nonprofit organization--not just the 33 city-owned cultural institutions that had been its longtime beneficiaries.

The city recoups its investment in culture in the form of income and sales tax, and down the road in tourist dollars. Another Alliance for the Arts study looked at the 1992-93 winter season, when just three museums (the Guggenheim, the Met, and MoMA) attracted an estimated 1.3 million tourists to blockbuster shows, with half of the tourists saying they came to New York specifically to see them. All together, out-of-town visitors brought an estimated $617 million in tourist dollars to New York, reaping $60 million in tax benefits for the city and state.

It’s up to museum directors and curators to capitalize on their donors’ confidence and widespread popularity. During the 1990s, critics argued that museums were becoming too populist, that dazzling architecture, visitor-friendly facilities, and extra-curricular programming were delegating art to a back seat. But it’s not such a radical notion to make visitors feel comfortable and welcome, to allow them to enjoy just being in a museum. For a least a couple of centuries, people have been drawn to culture’s reflected glamour--to plush opera halls and tony theaters--and, so far, culture has survived.


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