Is architecture deadly?

I saw an article today announcing that the American Folk Art Museum in NYC is selling its architecturally esteemed building  to the Museum of Modern Art. Jerry Saltz, an art critic for New York  Magazine claims that the poorly thought out architecture is to blame. Hm.

Now, let’s think about this. We all know that every business (museum or legal, for that matter) needs a differentiator to attract new patrons/clients and then must supply the services/resources to maintain and develop that relationship. Although we have seen starchitecture rise to its highest in the case of museums (Frank Gehry/Guggenheim Bilbao; Zaha Hadid/Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art; Renzo Piano/Modern Wing at the Art Institute in Chicago; Tadao Ando/Fort Worth Modern, and the list goes on and on and on),   architecture can neither be the reason a museum succeeds nor the reason it fails  in the long term.

Here’s why:

1. An architect can only design programmatically around what he or she is told: Museum governing boards must be visionary. They must think about what is possible but also, unfortunately, what is practical.  Oftentimes, visionary thinking can get in the way of developing a reasonable program for a new building. (For example, if Stanz’s report is correct and they are moving into a space 1/6 of their current building, why did they build a facility as large as they did? Vision, I’m sure. And it is this vision that helped them acquire an oustanding collection but not necessarily the understanding of where to put it.) If the executive director of a museum says that they are going to grow their collection by 50% in the next 10 years, then an architect is going to use that as a guideline for the development of the design. And while AFAM over estimated their needs, MoMA did the opposite.  Even with their Taniguchi re-do, everytime I go in there I want to shove people out of my way so I can see the art. MoMA needs more space.

2. Architects are consultants that must be managed: Like museum governing bodies, architects are visionary but they are still hired for discrete and functional purposes. Though they are paid to push the envelope, they are consultants that must be managed. It’s true — governing boards sometime need to reign them in but they are never in a position to make decisions without the sign-off of a whole host of stakeholders.  To blame them entirely for “bad” decisions is to simply use them as a scapegoat.

3. An architect can design a building, but he can’t curate the space: So much of our experience of art is based primarily on what is shown where and this is the specialty of curators not architects. Curators are some of the best people to help us understand the subtleties of exhibit navigations, object versus space relationships, and particular light requirements. So although the physical design of a space can limit or expand an exhibit’s possibilities, curators should be able to work within specific parameters to  make a collection work. Particularly those that assisted in the design of a new building.

3. An architect cannot control public taste: I hate to say this but art sales indicate that contemporary art not folk art is en vogue. With MoMA’s expansion and the opening of the New Museum (December 2007, design by SANAA architects. See image left) did the Folk Art Museum have enough public attention to pull off such a grand gesture? Despite it’s excellent collection, was it the right time to expand in that manner? Again, this relates to  No. 1 above.

Although I don’t  necessarily want MoMA to appropriate any more museum real estate in NYC  because I think there are other institutions that get overlooked, perhaps their acquisition of the American Folk Art Museum will allow them to transform some of their administrative areas into additional gallery spaces, alleviating my need to shove people. I took an adult education class at MoMA where we were allowed to wander around the museum at night and the staff work spaces were atrocious. Seriously, like an office space in the back of a Charlotte Russe. With the type of output they have, they need more administrative ameneties.

In closing, I admit that I only made it to the lobby of the American Folk Art Museum. Although I am an avid museum go-er, the collection and exhibit at the time didn’t inspire me to pay the $12 (a modest price considering it’s $20 for MoMA and Met, $18 for Guggenheim). I did check out the design of the building and I liked it, but I cannot comment on the working of the space from a collections perspective.

What I can comment on, however, is that is has been amazing to see architecture grow into something that people seek to understand and fund. Why not spend time thinking about what a space might do instead of how it currently functions? However, architecture, in and of itself, has never professed to be the business solution to a fiscally weak institution. It’s true that museums have seen initial rises in patron attendance after the construction of a new building, however, a new building can only be a draw for so long. Think about it — you build a new house and it’s great for a while and then it just becomes your house. No fancy curtainwall system can change that and museums who think that a flashy  new building will save them from steady declines in private and corporate giving alongside lack of public education on the benefits of art in communities are doomed to a mortgage they will never be able to repay.

Although it seems that the vision and triumph and love and honor that was was demonstated to NYC in the American Folk Art Museum was in vain,  I hope this moment in the history of their institution allows them to focus on what it’s priorities are and how it can better reach it’s audience.  In general, institutions have opportunities for greatness at times like this – evaluating what is needed vs wanted, clearly defining their mission and refining who their audience is.  Perhaps this is the moment that the American Folk Art Museum can transform their organization.

I hope so.

7 thoughts

  1. Architecture is about “moving” people within a space, both functionally and emotionally. Its hard enough to do one of the these, let alone both, but when it happens, its truly magical. Love the thoughts.

  2. The American Folk Art Museum is a beautiful building and it is sad that it will not continue to be used for it’s designed function. It’s success is in the relationship and integration with that which it houses. The care and craft of the design/construction reflect and pay homage to the art it contains.

    Unfortunately more and more institution are looking at Architecture as a marketing tool. It will always will be one aspect of Architecture, but certainly not it’s most dignified. Let’s face it, the reason why AMFA is doing poorly is because it’s overshadowed by MOMA and the economy tanked. I say blame Goldman Sachs.

    1. I agree that MoMA’s collection, brand, and visibility have genericized much of what we consider “art” and it keeps other types of art from seeming excting or “sexy.” (AFAM) It’s a shame.

      Although I feel that your comment harshes slightly on marketing, I agree that a building’s best use is it’s ability to connect and house people in a way that is genuine not to pay off a project development loan.

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