The Incredible Growing Art Museum

In a multibillion-dollar building boom, museums around the globe are erecting new structures or expanding their current homes. As they tailor themselves to accommodate bigger art, larger crowds, and broader missions, the very notion of the museum is evolving in the process. In a multibillion-dollar building boom, museums around the globe are erecting new structures or expanding their current homes. As they tailor themselves to accommodate bigger art, larger crowds, and broader missions, the very notion of the museum is evolving in the process.

Since its expanded campus opened to the public last year, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts has seen a marked increase in attendance. It’s not just locals and tourists who are flocking to the new $83 million, 192,000-square-foot Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. Museum directors, curators, trustees, and architectural consultants have also been pouring in to take a look.

The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, designed by Zaha Hadid.
Zaha Hadid LTD. Studios

According to Museum of Fine Arts director Peter Marzio, no fewer than 20 museums have dispatched representatives to examine Moneo’s addition and the rest of the Houston expansion project. Fifteen years in the making, it includes a renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s postwar galleries, a tunnel under Main Street connecting them to the Moneo building, and an off-site storage facility. The delegations are coming not only to admire the architecture, but also to seek the counsel of Marzio and his staff on how to restructure their home institutions to accommodate larger audiences, bigger works of art, and broader missions.

The traffic to Houston is only one sign of the frenzy of architectural activity at museums across the United States and around the world. It is a multibillion-dollar effort, a sustained growth spurt the likes of which the art world has never seen. “The world is going through an enormous building phase,” says Marzio. “It’s a golden age.”

In New York City alone, more than a dozen museums are building or gearing up to do so. This month, Bartholomew Voorsanger’s recasting of the Asia Society’s Park Avenue headquarters will open. In November, the Neue Galerie New York, devoted to early-20th-century German and Austrian art, will debut on Museum Mile, and in December, the American Folk Art Museum will inaugurate its new eight-story home designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates on 53rd Street, just down the street from the Museum of Modern Art, itself in the midst of an expansion by Yoshio Taniguchi. The Polshek Partnership is renovating and expanding the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Bronx Museum of the Arts is developing its own expansion plans with Arquitectonica; and the Queens Museum of Art is in the middle of a competition to choose an architect for an addition to its building.

But the boom is really a global phenomenon. In cities large and small, from Tokyo to Reno, museums are erecting new buildings, adding wings or freestanding structures to their existing facilities, and reconfiguring their current homes. Recent announcements include a Richard Meier building for the Frieder Burda collection in Baden-Baden, Germany, and a Frank Gehry museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, to showcase the works of potter George Ohr. This month, Santiago Calatrava’s winged pavilion for the Milwaukee Art Museum will be fully opened to the public, as will the Museum of World Religions in Taipei. Meanwhile, the two newest outposts of the Guggenheim, a trailblazer of this global expansion, are opening in the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. The Guggenheim Hermitage, a Kunsthalle in Cor-ten steel, and the hangarlike Guggenheim Las Vegas are the work of Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture, now also at work on an expansion plan for New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. And the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art are also evaluating finalists to expand and revamp their homes.

Facades and exhibition areas are not the only things being transformed. As institutions tailor themselves to keep up with the various and sometimes conflicting demands of employees, the public, and the art itself, the very notion of the museum is evolving.

“I think we’re all realizing that the idea of a museum as a place of galleries with storage in the basement is outmoded,” says Aaron Betsky, the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, which is raising funds to have Jo Coenen expand its building in Rotterdam. “Museums are about bringing art and people together. The means by which you can do that are anchored in the exposition and exhibition of a work of art but go far beyond that. You have to engage them in any way possible.”

So museums are morphing into new shapes to suit their multifaceted roles as scholarly redoubts and singles bars, civic centers and catering halls, learning centers and living rooms, pilgrimage sites and places offering quiet contemplation and the occasional transcendent experience. Yet as they become more popular and more populist, museums must also keep in sight their traditional mission of collecting and displaying art. Cities, trustees, and directors face exciting and difficult choices, particularly if they are working with the signature architecture of earlier eras, be it a Beaux-Arts temple or Meier’s 1983 High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Because architecture is an art form, erecting a building can sometimes seem like adding to the collection, according to some museum directors. “Let’s put it this way: it’s the only building I can accession,” says James N. Wood, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, which hired Renzo Piano to design its new building and gardens. However, Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, which commissioned Diller + Scofidio to design its new waterfront home, points out that choosing an architect and organizing an exhibition are not really parallels. “A curatorial decision comes and goes,” she says. But a building can’t be hidden in a warehouse.

Marzio stresses that marshaling the will to build and raising money to do so may be the easy part. “If you are very patient, you will do what you want to do,” he says. Indeed, Houston museum officials spent five years determining architectural plans and programming needs before hiring Moneo. And in the current climate of architectural exuberance, the once unimaginable is more easily achieved. Institutions have moved quickly to realize buildings that would have been no more than dreams a generation ago. Marzio offers a warning: “Be very careful what you ask for.”

To be sure, museums are asking their architects for different things. The Neue Galerie New York, for instance, built around the collections of Ronald Lauder and Serge Sabarsky, has taken a traditional approach to its mission and its appearance. It bought a 1914 Carrère & Hastings mansion on Fifth Avenue and hired Annabelle Selldorf to restore it; modernize its climate control, lighting, and security systems; and carve out a Viennese café on the ground floor.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, on the other hand, plans to utterly transform its present home, built in 1969 by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The Walker’s building committee selected the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, architects of the Tate Modern, to design a technologically enhanced, translucent structure that would add more than 100,000 square feet of interior space and four acres outdoors.

Walker director Kathy Halbreich says that, in making site visits, the Walker looked beyond art museums for models, to science museums, children’s museums, and even the Mall of America. The 4.2 million-square-foot consumer emporium in nearby Bloomington, Minnesota, the nation’s largest mall, “is a draw in our community,” says Halbreich. “Even the artists who come here want to see it, perhaps in a more jaded sense than others. It’s a place where things come together—film, theme park, eating, shopping. If you start to deconstruct the Mall of America, it’s not that different from what we offer.”

Halbreich says she doesn’t want to make the Walker into a mall, only to “understand its mech
anics enough to subvert it.” Museums, she says, should be aware of competition from other leisure activities and look for “a way to make education as compelling as other forms of entertainment.” To this end, the Walker has three “experience planners” on staff and is working with the MIT Media Lab to come up with innovative learning activities. One idea considered by Halbreich was an electronic information lounge “like a video arcade, with interactive games.”

The Walker is less concerned with increasing attendance, Halbreich says, than with “trying to increase the level of engagement and return visits. If we are not in the business of making blockbusters, can I make the experience a blockbuster experience? The real emphasis has to remain on our programs.

“If you were to walk inside the present building, you would know that you were in a museum with a collection of art from midcentury to the present,” says Halbreich. “What I hope you will see in 2005, when we plan to open the new Walker Art Center, would be more than a museum.”


he museum building boom can be traced to a number of late-20th-century developments: an increase in museum attendance, overburdened galleries, elevators, and gift shops. Contemporary art, whether on display or in storage, tends to take up more space than the work of earlier periods. Touring exhibitions require substantial temporary gallery space. The pleasures of urban life are ascendant. Museums, once the preserve of the elite, have embraced an ethos of inclusiveness and a broader educational, social, and cultural portfolio.

Two other factors have lent this boom a singular boldness: the economic prosperity of the 1990s and the desire to be at the forefront of architectural innovation. The most obvious symbol of the latter is the Guggenheim Bilbao. Since it opened in 1997, the undulating, titanium-covered edifice has put a decaying Spanish industrial town, once most noteworthy for Basque terrorist attacks, on the A-list for cultural tourists from around the world. Its architect, Frank Gehry, has become a celebrity well beyond art and architecture circles. So has the building itself.

Some museums and cities are seeking similar revitalization and renown. In Milwaukee, Spaniard Santiago Calatrava’s mammoth lakeside pavilion is capped by a 90-ton, mobile steel sunshade with a greater wingspan than a 747. “People started to talk about it being our St. Louis arch or Sydney Opera House,” says Russell Bowman, the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. “For us, that became a very important driver of fund-raising, because people began to see the building as a city project that was much larger than the museum.”

Daniel Libeskind’s angular 146,000-square-foot addition to Gio Ponti’s fortresslike 1971 Denver Art Museum is still in the design stage, but Denver mayor Wellington Webb proclaimed that, when completed, the complex “will put Denver on the map as a world-class destination city.”

Kate M. Sellers, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, has yet to see a design from Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of Holland’s UN Studio for integrating and expanding its five-building campus, yet she says the new Wadsworth “has to have the buzz that you really have to see this thing.” She hopes the new building will catch the eye of drivers on Interstates 84 and 91 as they pass through Hartford.

Some architects and museum officials are wary of reading too much into the long, curvaceous shadow cast by Bilbao. “You can’t just plop a Bilbao down,” says Gehry. “If you’re going to build something, it’s got to be part of a community, have a program, have backing and a staff to manage it.”

“What I see in interviews and competitions is that the boards funding the museum see a spectacular project, whether it’s the MoMA tower or the Gehry or Calatrava building, and they are fascinated by the attention it gets,” says architect Richard Gluckman. “Sometimes there’s a lack of knowledge of what it means to make that kind of architectural commitment. They are very expensive, and they exist for themselves.”

The designer of many of the galleries in Chelsea, Gluckman is known for neutral, white interiors that defer to the art that fills them. He has converted industrial buildings into the Dia Center for the Arts in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He is now working on the Mori Arts Center, a museum at the top of a Tokyo skyscraper that has a partnership with MoMA, and is designing his first museum building from the ground up for the Austin Museum of Art in Texas.

“It will be interesting to see, when you purchase a high-style building, what it will be 20 years later,” architect Hugh Hardy said at a recent conference on museum architecture at New York University. “It can be something the world’s never seen before, but it can’t stay that way.” It can also be expensive to maintain; the Guggenheim Bilbao has already begun scrubbing a reddish-brown residue off its titanium plates. Peter Eisenman’s glass home for the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus, which cost $43 million when it was built a decade ago, now requires $10 million in renovations, in part to protect the art from natural light.

With signature museum architecture, “after you experience the outside as epiphanic, you experience the inside as anticlimactic—as well as the art as anticlimactic,” says Robert Venturi, who designed the Seattle Art Museum and the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London. “The museum for our time must be in itself a work of art but, at the same time, a work of art that does not upstage the art it is the setting for and the shelter for. It has to be positive and recessive at the same time.”

Gehry, who is among those who believe signature architecture and good gallery spaces can go hand in hand, says of his critics, “I think they should search their souls on this fairy-tale thing that an art museum has to be neutral and not there architecturally so that it doesn’t compete with the art.” He adds, “A building for art should have a persona. It should be perceived as an important building for the community, and compete with the city hall and the library.” For him, great art can do well in many settings: “You could put a Mondrian in a warehouse and it would be riveting.”

“If you don’t have walls that can receive art, that’s a problem,” Houston’s Marzio says. Sometimes, he says, trustees “want a bold architectural statement, and they will do it at any cost—and I don’t mean cost in terms of money, I mean function. If a museum’s only resource is a dramatic resource, maybe it’s not a museum.”

“I’m worried that the Calatrava building in Milwaukee will be nothing more than a hangar and will expose the thinness of the art collection and become just another tourist attraction,” says Betsky of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. “The hope is that good architects”—he names Koolhaas and van Berkel as examples—”will be able to combine their experience in organizing complex structures with the ability to make strong forms.”


mid this heated debate, the innovative spirit chugs along. It has moved bulkier institutions, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to consider radical solutions; on the Los Angeles museum’s shortlist of finalists for a $150 million to $200 million expansion of its confounding piecemeal campus are Libeskind, who built the Jewish Museum in Berlin and is working on another one in San Francisco, and local visionary Thom Mayne and his Morphosis studio. It has paved the way for Mississippians to commission Gehry’s museum for Ohr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi, whose eccentric ceramics, ignored during his lifetime, have been compared with Gehry’s later work. Gehry, who is also designing a new wing for the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, D.C., has been besieged by proposals since Bil
bao; he says
e turns down 98 percent of them and had to withdraw from the selection process for the Cleveland Museum of Art because his office was “overloaded.”

Architectural adventurousness has also inspired institutions, particularly those devoted to contemporary work, to look beyond established figures, like Gehry, Piano, and Meier, to a younger generation. The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center hired London-based Zaha Hadid to build its futuristic new home. Medvedow says Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art chose Diller + Scofidio, the architects, artists, and MacArthur-grant recipients, whose small body of built work includes the redesign of the Brasserie restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building, because “we were looking for a firm that would actually advance architecture.”

Michael Maltzan, the Los Angeles–based architect who once worked in Gehry’s firm, is giving the UCLA Hammer Museum such an overhaul that its original unfinished Barnes building, which Hammer director Ann Philbin says has the presence of a parking structure, will be all but unrecognizable. “To discover an emerging talent is much more interesting than to hire someone who has been canonized,” says Philbin. Maltzan (who is designing MoMA’s temporary home in Queens) is collaborating with graphic designer Bruce Mau and landscape designer Petra Blaisse early in the design process. But Philbin finds Maltzan appealing for more than his integrated approach to design. “We required someone for whom it would be a large project. We need a lot of hands-on time. That is not something I could have gotten from a Koolhaas or a Gehry.”

Not every museum is looking to make a spectacle of itself. The Detroit Institute of Arts just broke ground on a 75,000-square-foot, Michael Graves—designed expansion of its 1927 Paul Cret facility. Maurice D. Parrish, the museum’s executive vice president, says, “Everyone recognizes the importance of any work that we do to be sympathetic and respectful of the original building.”

Signature buildings, notes Marc Wilson, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, are “a question of the insecurity of the civic ego…. For us, the museum is justly famous for the art.” The Nelson-Atkins selected Steven Holl, whose museum buildings in Helsinki, Finland, and Bellevue, Washington, earned him a reputation as an innovator, to undertake its expansion. Wilson says Holl was the obvious choice from the shortlist, “perhaps because the others followed our instructions—which were to put a massive structure in front of the old building—too much.” Surveys commissioned by the Nelson-Atkins indicated a tremendous local affection for its 1933 classical temple. “They love this forbidding building,” says Wilson. “They want it to look like a museum. They didn’t want it to be a carnival. Nobody wants it to look like a mall.” In Holl’s mostly subterranean addition in Kansas City, a series of transparent “lenses” protrude from the ground, and a new sculpture garden weaves between them.


ith scores of new museums and millions of square feet of additional space, how will it all be put to use, and how will visitors be affected? The architecture is often linked to a long process of soul-searching for museums about what their actual mission might be. Many institutions spend several years formulating a long-range strategic plan before they begin looking at architects.

“The building is the initial statement of the values of the institution,” says Harry F. Parker III, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which hired Herzog & de Meuron for the rebuilding of the de Young Museum, the original having been irreversibly damaged in the 1989 earthquake. The new de Young will have a “walk-through capability,” says Parker, which will allow visitors to pass through the building without paying.

“We are going to give people in this free zone access to the art, to give them a sense of what art can do,” says Parker. “Museums have been so associated with wealth and luxury, and a lot has happened in the last 25 years that has opened them up, but we still don’t know how to attract teenagers; we have zero experience with the homeless and reaching any kind of marginalized societal group. Museums are just beginning to address that.”

Transparency is in vogue as a physical way of promoting accessibility. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s expansion by the Polshek Partnership (also responsible for the new glass-skinned planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History) includes a sloping glass entrance pavilion in the place where the Brooklyn Museum, like many Beaux-Arts palaces, once had a grand stairway. While glass may be a philosophically harmonious choice, it is not always a judicious one in every part of a museum; too much light can be bad for art.

The Walker wants to avoid using “materials that you don’t identify with in your life,” says Halbreich. “I don’t want this to be a king’s palace; I don’t want it to look like it’s richer than you are.”

“We may want to take some time to consider who our audience is, what it is they are expecting, what they can afford to do, what they can afford to spend in terms of their own time coming to our museum,” Dan Keegan, director of the San Jose Museum of Art, remarked at a panel at this year’s annual convention of the American Association of Museums.

Director Andrea Rich says the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has conducted surveys to find out why some Angelenos don’t come to the museum. “They say they don’t have the right clothes. I think that’s unacceptable. They pay taxes,” says Rich. “There are cultures in L.A. for whom it is a very intimidating space. And if we believe that the works are of value to the community, then we have to make it not difficult for people to come.”

The Art Institute of Chicago’s new entrance in the Piano building, which will face a new city park, will be designated for use by school groups. “For a lot of kids, the first experience of an art museum is getting off that bus,” says Wood. “We want to make it appealing, practical, and efficient, but also uplifting.”

Traditionally, museums have built and expanded to accommodate entire collections. Of course, this continues today. In March, an Art Deco bank building in Lucerne will be transformed for the Rosengart Collection. The vault will hold a formidable collection of more than 120 Klees, and the ground floor will be given over to 30 Picasso paintings and the drawings collected by Angela Rosengart and her father, Siegfried, who began the collection. And outside Basel, the Laurenz Foundation will open the Schaulager, a new breed of facility for contemporary art designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The Schaulager will have occasional exhibitions, but it will not quite be a museum, according to Theodora Vischer of the Laurenz Foundation. At the Schaulager, the collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation will be available to scholars and museum professionals by appointment.

Marzio says Houston’s expansion was not built around any particular collection, but without the Moneo building, “the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation’s 300-plus works would never have ended up here.” Marzio adds that, in the year since it opened, the museum has acquired and received art worth $85 million, or as much as the Moneo building cost to construct. Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which has commissioned work before but has never had its own building, will begin collecting in its new waterfront home.

Not every expansion is about creating gallery space. Museums are building classrooms and learning centers. “Our educators were going all over the country acting as consultants on museum projects, but we didn’t have the resources to run the same programs here,” says the Denver Museum’s director, Lewis Sharp. Amenities like rest rooms, food service, and gift shops are getting bigger, an
d are being intermingled with gallery spaces. “We wanted a reception hall that could give us a flexible space,” says Bowman of Milwaukee, “a space we could use for dinners but paradoxically didn’t have any art in it, because the art would be at risk.” The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is one of several institutions considering a new building that would function as a central entrance, like I. M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre.

Complaints by museumgoers that they get lost in museums raise another major concern for many institutions: flow. Taniguchi’s expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art will begin a chronological survey of the institution’s collection at the top, allowing it to foreground contemporary art on the ground level. In Houston, a tunnel connects the Moneo building with Mies van der Rohe’s building across the street; in Milwaukee and Denver, new bridges rise above thoroughfares to bring visitors to the art. Flow matters for museumgoers, but also for the art that must be transported. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says Rich, “to get a piece of art from the Anderson building to the contemporary building, from the east to the west side of campus, we have to crate it as if it’s going to Paris.”

In addition to the broader array of visitor services, advances in conservation make for complex internal systems that can be especially challenging when reworking an older building. To keep costs down, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston built separate buildings for both staff and storage. Says Rich, “Museums require humidity control, but you don’t need that for a curatorial assistant.”

With all these competing and sometimes contradictory agendas, a museum has to set priorities. Institutions can spend several years before coming up with designs, assessing their needs, formulating master plans, and searching for appropriate architects.

“The key is having two very principled people involved,” says Bill Lacy, president of Purchase College, State University of New York, and executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. “The museums that don’t work well are the ones where the architect doesn’t have any guidance, or where the director completely dominates the process.”

Larger museums require more capital to build and have higher operating costs, making them vulnerable to an unpredictable economy. “We were very lucky,” says Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry. “We were able to get off the ground at a time when the market was at its apex. With the economy slowing down, it will be more of a challenge for other institutions.” So far, the Modern has raised more than $500 million of its $650 million capital campaign to cover the reconstruction of its 53rd Street building and provide for a temporary site in Long Island City, Queens.

Some museums are already feeling the pinch. “We hoped to break ground in October, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” says Dana Friis-Hansen, chief curator and interim executive director of the Austin Museum of Art, which tabled a smaller building project in the 1980s because of an earlier economic downturn. “The delay,” he says, “may be as much as a year. We don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of the economy. We had a consultant in about a month ago who said the sky is not falling; there are plenty of people in Austin who still have money and are still willing to give.”

Parrish of the Detroit Institute, which postponed its Graves expansion a decade ago and is now proceeding with a scaled-back version of that plan, says the philanthropic climate has also changed. “Ten years ago it was, in people’s minds, the responsibility of a few very wealthy individuals to support cultural institutions.” Today, he says, the base is broader, and more foundations and individuals are willing to shoulder the burden.

Parrish also says that good planning is essential in any economic climate. “When we came up with a revised master plan and knew we had less space for everything, education was still very important. If we hadn’t been clear about that in the beginning, the idea of a learning center could have fallen by the wayside in favor of something that would be desirable but maybe not as critical.”

Even before they break ground on new buildings, some museums have been keeping their next expansions in mind. Bowman says that the Milwaukee Art Museum has reserved space for its next addition on one side of its Saarinen building; the Calatrava is on the other. Unlike the Calatrava, Bowman says, the new one “would probably be primarily an art building, and a fairly simple building.” The Wadsworth Atheneum has its eye on Hartford’s city hall. Gluckman’s two-story Austin Museum of Art is supposed to be engineered so it can expand upward.

There is a concern, however, that more can become too much—too much square footage and too many museums. While calling for additional gallery space, the facilities master plan for the Cleveland Museum of Art’s expansion also aims to “maintain the ability to experience the whole museum in a single day.” In a similar effort to keep a large museum from feeling overwhelming, the Art Institute of Chicago is planning a “main street,” a long corridor with clusters of galleries coming off the axis. “You may not see the whole village in a day, but wherever you are, the scale is still human,” says Wood.

Visitors grow weary; so do curators and architects. “When I go to the Met, I get tired,” says Gehry, whose preliminary design for a $678 million, 570,000-square-foot Guggenheim in lower Manhattan was the centerpiece of a summer retrospective of his work at the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim building on Fifth Avenue. “There’s only so much you can take in and absorb.”

“The Louvre and the Met don’t seem to suffer from size,” says Lacy of Purchase, who often serves as a consultant for museums searching for architects. “But a lot of places don’t have the kinds of collections that take a long time to see.”

All the same, Lacy says that requests for his advice on new art-museum buildings have never been as frequent as they are now.

“Like any business or endeavor, there’s a limit,” says Lacy. “But I don’t think we’ve reached it.”

Blake Eskin last wrote for ARTnews on sculptor Mark di Suvero.

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[add_to_cart item="100-09" showprice="no"]