IN THE VOICES OF SILENCE, André Malraux observed that the art museum is a strange institution. It holds only the art that is portable and available, wrenches it out of context, and sets it up in improbable juxtapositions. If he had lived to see some of our new museums, surely he would also have observed that museums are threatening to trivialize the art they house.
If you need a glamorous space for a corporate event, the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, can arrange to rent you one of theirs—for example, the Temple of Dendur. The tiny 2,000-year-old Egyptian structure, which is mounted on a shallow stone podium over a pool of water meant to represent the Nile, is housed in a huge, glassy new wing designed by Kevin Roche. The museum staff will supervise music, catering, and flowers. And the granite floor that rims the installation is described by staff members as "perfect for dancing." (One senior staff member of another museum, who had thought that the Met's Temple of Dendur wing was an extravagant waste of space and money, recently attended his first party there and changed his mind. "The band was playing and people were dancing in front of the temple," he recalls with enthusiasm. "Cecil B. De Mille just couldn't have done it any better.")
If you're getting married, you can have your wedding in the dramatic atrium of Atlanta's High Museum of Art, designed by Richard Meier. Since the new museum building opened, in 1983, it has been one of the hottest rental spots in town. The whole museum can be kept open, too, so that guests can stroll around; a staff member describes this higher-priced option as "like renting a hotel ballroom, but nicer and with pictures."
And at the Art Institute of Chicago just about anything short of a wedding can be accommodated (and something is, nearly every night of the week) in the ornate and meticulously reconstructed Trading Room from Louis Sullivan's otherwise demolished Chicago Stock Exchange Building (c. 1893). Rental fees for that room are so high that museum-related events tend to be priced out. They are sufficiently high, in fact, that the cigarette burns, water marks, chips and cracks, and cockroaches that result are deemed by those concerned to be justifiable tradeoffs.
The art museum as social gathering place and cultural department store, although hinted at or imitated elsewhere, is an American invention, and has been subject to fine-tuning for decades. Even at the turn of the century-during this country's first museum-building boom-the new structures, unlike their European counterparts, often came fitted out with libraries, lecture halls, and prominently placed sales counters, and their staffs were busy publishing attractive periodicals that were meant to stir up public interest.
There were unenthusiastic observers of the hoopla. Benjamin Ives Gilman, whose study of museums was published in 1918, warned that efforts to publicize and popularize art museums would result in an atmosphere that would work against "real comprehension." He argued, too, that the pictures would be damaged by crowds of people coming into the buildings for no good reason and kicking up dust. The historian and critic Lewis Mumford, writing a bit later, observed that the new, important-looking museum buildings that were being erected across the country were symbolic primarily of imperialism and the plunder of other civilizations; he dismissed America's overblown museums as "loot-heaps."
Nevertheless, the construction of art museums boomed and boomed again over the decades, their numbers growing easily from hundreds to thousands. Expectations continued to evolve as well, and so more activities, more things to eat, and more things to buy were added to the museum-going experience. Museum directors took on with zeal the mission of bringing art (or at least the idea of art) to an ever wider public. By the 1970s full-service restaurants, vast book and gift shops, and jam-packed "blockbuster" exhibitions had become standard. (In the early 1980s the Metropolitan Museum pushed the emporium mode to new heights by establishing its very successful bridal registry-and then into the stratosphere when it began placing scarf- and bauble-strewn sales counters adjacent to nearly every exhibition in the building.) Other museum activities of the 1980s are similarly superheated. In fact, they are threatening to eclipse everything that came before.
AN ART MUSEUM is now the single most prestigious and sought-after commission for an architect-frequently one is awarded only after a long, rigorous, expensive international competition or a worldwide search conducted by a ponderously star-studded selection committee. The American Association of Museums doesn't have up-to-date statistics, but a conservative estimate would be that twenty-eight new art museums and twenty significant additions to existing art museums have been announced, begun, or completed in the United States in the past five years.
Hardly any of these new structures comes without an elaborate array of ancillary spaces to house all the things that must go on in a contemporary museum. The extension that Michael Graves has designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, for example, includes a 250-seat theater with its own lobby, greenroom, and lounge. And if work does proceed (at the moment, the controversial design has been held up by community groups and the Landmarks Preservation Commission), the restaurant and shop in the existing building will be enlarged. A planned expansion of the Brooklyn Museum-designed by Japan's most famous architect, Arata Isozaki, and the former dean of Columbia University's architecture school, James Stewart Polshek-calls for the square footage for shops and restaurants to be increased by 100 and 210 percent, respectively.
The phenomenon has become strangely exportable, too. The Tate Gallery, in London, for example, which recently opened a new set of architecturally ambitious galleries (designed by James Stirling) to house its Turner collection, is now widely admired for its wine cellar, and it is said to be quite difficult to get a reservation there for lunch.
When museums were thought of primarily as places for the conservation, study, and display of works of art, new structures were designed both to suggest that opportunities for repose and contemplation were available within and to symbolize what were believed to be the uplifting properties of art: hence the park and suburban settings, the important-looking colonnaded entrances and celestial domes, the exhilarating flights of steps.
Now, however, although the art is still in there someplace, museums stand at the center of social life. And the buildings themselves are expected to attract and seduce the casual passerby, to deliver glamour, panache, and chic, and to promise a good time to be had by all. Neither the slick emptiness and aimless flow of the shopping mall nor the heightened jolt of vividness and style of the latest nightclub is considered to be entirely out of place. In fact, art museums seem to be sliding toward an aesthetic that is about commerce more than anything else. These buildings have an important effect on how people come into contact with and think about works of art.
This is not to say that the art museum has had a particularly long and venerable history to depart from. Just over 200 years ago there was no such thing anywhere as a public art museum. The picture and sculpture collections that had begun to be amassed during the Renaissance-when, scholars generally agree, art came to be valued as a thing in itself, rather than for its success in depicting religious and civic themes-belonged predominantly to princes, noblemen, and the Church.