Thursday, February 11, 2016

Edifice Complex and Museums

Here's a quick museum business quiz --- answer true or false.

1) A museum can be too big.

2) A museum can be totally"self-supporting" financially.

Depending on your answers to those questions, you may or may not believe that museums (especially in the U.S.) have a serious "edifice complex."

That is, the blind belief that somehow merely constructing a GIGANTIC building, funded through a combination of hopelessly over-optimistic attendance projections and/or slightly dubious loan arrangements, will create a successful, sustainable museum.

Part of what brings this all to mind is the sad and distressing news out of Miami, concerning the Frost Museum of Science — a signature project at the heart of the new Museum Park downtown that has run out of cash before construction can be finished.  The Frost is not merely a project "too big to fail" but "too big to finish."

In an eleventh hour move, the Frost project will be finished, but at a wrenching emotional price to the museum --- the museum's namesake funders — Phillip and Patricia Frost — announced that they're going to bail out the museum with a bridge loan to keep construction going. But they also exacted very tough terms: they’ve effectively “fired" the entire current 41-person board of the science museum.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.  Full disclosure: I consulted on the Frost project up until late 2015 and I really admire the creative team there.  I sincerely hope they can move forward and open the museum in a positive and sustainable way.

Unfortunately, Miami's Frost Museum is hardly the exception to the museum edifice complex.  Here's a short list of news story links to ponder in a similar vein:


Museum of Jewish Heritage

Exploratorium (here and here)

MOSI (Tampa)

Science City and Prariefire  (A geographically-related pairing in my view)

Please Touch Museum (here and here)

The National Children's Museum

All museums with problems that could be reasonably tied to their (overly?) large new facilities or expansion plans.

I offer these links and examples not merely as a litany of pain, or a map to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but as a plea to museum and civic leaders:  If you think it is difficult to build a new museum, it is much, much, much, more difficult to create a thriving and sustainable cultural institution that is responsive to the communities surrounding it.

Maybe there is something ingrained in the American psyche and in the mindset of wealthy philanthropists that prevents modest, truly sustainable projects from moving forward when more grandiose alternatives always seem to be waiting in the wings.

Before completely despairing for the museum business, I'll offer the example of COSI in Columbus, Ohio as an example of an institution saddled (for a variety of political reasons) with a new building that was too large and unsustainable from the day it opened in 1999, that has managed to claw its way back (over the past 16+ years!) through, for example, a variety of community partnerships that involved sharing and leasing unused space inside COSI.  (You can read more about COSI's institutional evolution here and here.)

Like most addictions, edifice complex is probably best kicked if it's never started in the first place, but, lacking that, I hope museums will continue to be smarter (and smaller!) with their facilities and financial projections in the future --- especially given the changing demographics and expectations of cultural consumers.

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