Are Fine Art Museums the Next Starbucks?

Places like the Corcoran and the Guggenheim look to spread their brand. Does expansion mean selling out?



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.

Arguing that the Whitney would lose direction by opening a new space meant to be friendlier to the institution's art seems to lose sight of the fact that the museum's mission is to bring its art to as many viewers as possible, in as good an environment as possible. The dilemma pitting a nostalgic Lauder against an updated space raises the question of what should be most important to a museum- its brand identity, or the art?

At Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation, the real estate is part of the art collection. The Foundation, a museum that features a collection of early modernist work ranging from impressionism to cubism, is actually a gallery abutting the house of collector and early 20th century drug magnate Albert C. Barnes. Barnes endowed the Foundation with his collection on the condition that the works not be lent out or moved from their original positions on the walls. But with a building from 1922, it's not easy to keep a $25 billion dollar collection safely climate controlled, much less ideally accessible to the public.

Understandably, the Barnes Foundation wants to move. It has raised an initial $150 million toward the construction of a new space in the 2000s block of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the same street that terminates at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although the Foundation has committed to preserving Barnes' original museum down to the collection layout within the new space, a coalition called "Friends of the Barnes Foundation" have mounted legal and political protest against the move.

Real estate is murky business, but look at these varying cases and follow the art rather than the money. Where the Corcoran's aborted expansion and subsequent sale has failed to provide for the museum's public, other museums are succeeding in putting their audiences, and their art, first. It is not wrong for art museums to expand or push their brands, but it is wrong for the institutions to fail to provide foremost for the stewardship of the art and the viewers in their care.

There may come a time when stumbling upon an art museum franchise is as easy as brushing past a neighborhood Starbucks. For now, the Whitney and the Barnes might move or expand, but institutions have to change in order to survive. The more dynamic these museums are today, in terms of their public identity as well as their collection and art resources, the greater the possibility that they will remain so in the future.