Are Fine Art Museums the Next Starbucks?



When does an art museum become less a public institution and more a glorified entrance lobby? When its developers, themselves scions of the contemporary art world, refer to it as "a new paradigm for a kind of hotel-museum community."

Washington DC's Corcoran Gallery of Art plans to sell a property originally earmarked for its art school to uber-art collectors and hotel kingpins Don and Mera Rubell, the same pair who will curate an exhibition of their collection planned for the Corcoran in 2011. Thus the original public sale of the discounted land to the Corcoran turns into a "disappointing" hotel-private museum development instead of an art school, and a case of art world inside trading tied up in public museum real estate.

We are in some ways lucky to be living in the era of art museums as big-box stores. Not dissimilar to urban Wal-Marts, an increasing number of art museums have expanded in order to host greater numbers of both visitors and exhibitions, not to mention cafes and gift shops. But from constructing massive new spaces to brand building and franchising, many art museums have come under fire for being too eager to expand, neglecting their original missions or pushing too far beyond art world boundaries. Institutions as diverse as New York's Whitney and Museum of Modern Art, DC's Corcoran and National Gallery and Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation are all tied up in development deals somewhere between the public good and private interest.

The Guggenheim might be the modern pioneer of museum land-grabbing. Named after its infamously expansion-driven ex-director Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's decision to open satellite branches abroad has been coined the 'Krens effect'. The museum's branch in Bilbao, Spain and a planned outpost in Abu Dhabi (which will share a location with a branch of the Louvre) will provide the Guggenheim with a greater platform to access new audiences and art communities, as well as push the museum as an international household name.

It is now possible, and acceptable, for art museums to think in terms of an institutional brand as well as art stewardship. Though few institutions can afford to act on the international level of the Guggenheim, many smaller museums are considering opening local branches or expanding their home spaces. On one hand, expansion leads to greater public access to art and greater opportunities for the museum itself. On the other, what might be good for the brand might be bad for the art, and vice versa.

It is this conflict that's currently getting the Whitney into hot water. The trouble is that the museum might want to leave its ancestral home, a Marcel Breuer-designed monolith with dingy gallery space, and move elsewhere in the city. A planned move to the High Line would provide a better context for the Whitney's collection and more space for offices and institutional resources. But what is the Whitney to do when trustee Leonard A. Lauder grants them $125 million under the proviso that they not sell their Breuer building? One option is to run a new High Line space as a branch, keeping the Breuer home open as well. Lauder and other older trustees decry this 'two museums' plan as a "vanity project" potentially harmful to the Whitney's core mission.

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Kyle Chayka contributes on visual art to and LEAP magazine in Beijing, and posts at @chaykak on Twitter. More

Kyle Chayka writes about art. He contributes on visual art to and LEAP magazine in Beijing, and posts at @chaykak on Twitter.

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