Why arts organizations love new buildings

By Felix Salmon
July 5, 2012

In 2002, Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, and created a whole cottage industry of people — himself foremost among them — flying around the country and the world, telling cities how to attract creative people and thereby thrive. In truth, however, these cities didn’t need much persuading. Between 1998 and 2001, expenditure on creative-industry construction projects — theaters, museums, performing arts centers — quadrupled, from a little over $400 million per year to almost $1.8 billion. Here’s the chart, from Set in Stone, a major new research project from the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center:


Clearly, around the turn of the century, cities decided that building new cultural centers was a great idea: in total, American cities spent some $16 billion on cultural construction projects between 1994 and 2008. But was spending those billions good for the creative class, for cities, or for creativity? That’s far from obvious. For one thing, the more money you spend on construction, the less money you spend on people:

Our survey evidence suggests that as a result of investing in projects during this period, many organizations also had to cut staff sizes significantly. The negative relationship between the number of cultural managers and per capita investment may just suggest that capital and labor act as substitutes, thus an organization that invests more in physical capital invests less in labor.

One case study can stand for many, here:

In Roanoke, Virginia, the art museum embarks on the facility planning process with the humble goal of expanding its gallery space, but over time, and partially inspired by the Guggenheim Bilbao, it decides to build a sprawling $68 million architectural landmark so as to redefine the city’s identity and boost economic development. The post-modernist design proves controversial as well as more expensive than originally anticipated. Once the new Taubman Museum of Art opens, attendance is far below estimates, while the cost of operating the new facility is far above them. To balance its books, the museum is forced into multiple rounds of layoffs and drastic increases in its admission charges.

Here in New York, I’ve been following the sad saga of Cooper Union, whose massively expensive new academic building seems to have been the final nail in the venerable institution’s coffin. Essentially, the college took out a monster mortgage to build the project, but projected no extra income that would allow it to make its mortgage payments.

And when I was in Aspen last week, I talked to two different museum directors, both of whom have very shiny brand-new buildings, about the whys and wherefores of embarking on such massive projects. One of them, in particular, admitted to me that the amount of money and effort that was poured into architecture was difficult to justify when looked at from the perspective of his institution’s mission. But he said that raising money for a new building was vastly easier, always, than raising money for an endowment, or for general operating expenses.

Which is not to say that it’s easy. “In our sample,” says the report, “the number of leadership transitions that occurred from the time the project was initially proposed to when it opened its doors to the public was striking”.

This is not surprising. Big architecture tends to be accompanied by big egos — the architects, the board members writing the big checks, the museum directors with outsize ambitions, the municipal burghers wanting to make their mark, and so on and so forth. Missions are easily subsumed to a general feeling that if something new and shiny enough is built, massive crowds and critical acclaim will automagically appear.

Buildings have names slapped on them, and you can see the money in a way that you can’t if you’re spending on things like curatorial staff or acquisitions or touring budgets or insurance. Most other forms of arts spending feel ephemeral, in a way that putting up some huge edifice doesn’t. Even if the money spent on that edifice would much better serve the mission of the institution in some other way.

What’s more, there’s something naturally ponderous about non-profit institutions housed in some kind of Big Architecture. Here in New York, for instance, consider Zankel Hall, the $72 million project to create a more intimate sibling for Carnegie Hall, which was designed to attract a younger, cooler, crowd. And then compare it to Le Poisson Rouge, a minimally-redesigned nightclub downtown, which manages to put on equally exciting programming at no higher prices, all while being run on a for-profit basis. All too often, if you build something expensive, all you really create is new layers of administrative headaches and bureaucracy.

That said, there are few major civic institutions which don’t live in grand buildings. Constructing something showy is a statement of ambition and intent — one which doesn’t always work out as planned, but which is probably a necessary precondition if you want to lay the foundations for a major arts organization which will last for many decades and which will have a national or international reputation. Maybe we should look at all this construction much as a portfolio manager might: there will be winners and there will be losers, but overall it has surely been a benefit to the nation. And frankly, $16 billion over 15 years is a pretty low sum — less than a dollar per US household per month, most of which was donated by rich philanthropists who would otherwise have given much less.

That’s the real reason that cultural institutions build, I think: directors reckon — rightly — that a large part of the money is additional to what they would otherwise receive, and that if they don’t build, they’ll never get it. When the philanthropically-inclined rich decide that mission-building is more important than edifice-building, that will change. I’m not holding my breath.

(HT: Badger)


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