The Museum As Bazaar

There's even a place for art

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.

Collections like the one at the Louvre began to be opened to the public only in the eighteenth century-and even then policies were not exactly egalitarian. Hours were often limited, for example, and requirements for dress were known to exist, with access restricted in some cases to those who could show up in top hats (even a relatively progressive museum might demand "clean shoes").

It was not until the nineteenth century that architects were called upon to design freestanding buildings specifically for the public display of works of art. And when they began, they tended, not surprisingly, to borrow in various ways from the configuration of the Renaissance palace. The series of connected rooms arranged around courtyards happened to work very well for the display of art. The palatial associations were helpful, too, in providing settings of some grandeur, which were expected.

Variations on the palace theme came to prevail in the United States as well (at least until the advent of modernism). The symbolism was appropriate, because the buildings were meant to serve as little palaces of culture and emblems of civilization in cities whose inhabitants wished earnestly to demonstrate that they were not living in cultural wastelands.

If architects are coming up with less convincing and coherent design solutions today (Michael Graves's design for the Whitney extension has been criticized for looking "like a post office," and Arata Isozaki's Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has been called "a civic center"), the fragmented purposes of the art museum may be at least partly to blame.

ROBERT VENTURI, the design principal of the Philadelphia firm Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, the author of the watershed document Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and the person who is credited with almost singlehandedly bringing symbolism and historical allusion back to architecture, is now at work on designs for a string of new museum buildings in the United States (in Austin, Seattle, and La Jolla) and for an extension to the National Gallery in London. He has found that the program-the commissioning organization's set of requirements-for an art museum, which used to be among the most straightforward of programs, has turned into "one of the most complicated in existence."

In a talk he gave to London's Royal Society of Arts last year, Venturi explained that while the ratio of space for art to space for other uses in a nineteenth-century museum typically was 9 to 1, the ratio now is likely to be about 1 to 2. He listed some of the spaces that the architect of a museum may now be called upon to design, including spaces for films, lectures, concerts, and other sorts of performances; one or more restaurants and their kitchens; a shop; studios; laboratories; computer facilities; conference rooms; sufficient offices, bathrooms, and locker rooms for the staff requited to run all the programs; and, of course, a large, important, festive space in which to hold special dinners and gala celebrations.

Venturi reminded his audience that the architect is expected to bring all these spaces together in some logical, clear, and convenient way-and still manage to find somewhere to put the art. A long, complicated trek past commercial and culinary displays, alluring in themselves, does not usually help to establish the kind of relaxation conducive to contemplation. In fact, it sets up a kind of motion that keeps one's feet moving past the pictures.

As Venturi sees it, when you finally make it to the art, you may be "either worn down by the banality of the maze you have traversed, or jaded by the drama of the spatial, symbolic, or chromatic fantasies the architect has ejaculated you through." And the price you pay is that "the art when you reach it has become a kind of anticlimax-in fact, dull, as you perceive it with your by then constricted pupils, jaded sensibilities, and loss of orientation."

It's not as though the art hasn't had a little souping up of its own, though. According to Paul Marantz, a lighting designer who specializes in museums, our visual expectations have been so heightened by "the general pictorial world of films, television, restaurants, boutiques, and so on" that paintings displayed in any subtle way, such as in natural light, tend to look uninteresting.

So even though natural light has been making a comeback after years of completely artificially lit galleries in which paintings have been displayed like shoes in department-store windows, and even though natural light is the only full-spectrum light-the light by which the human eye has evolved and the light by which all pre-twentieth-century works were created-track lights are almost always installed in galleries, with spots beamed at the paintings to help them along.

Galleries have been getting some help too. In fact, the palace look has been making its way back in, after the interruption of large, flexible, white-walled spaces that were a requisite of modernism. Rooms of fixed dimension, for example, opening one to another, have been showing up again in museum after museum, as have colorfully painted and fabric-covered walls and decorative moldings galore. (A really strange retrofit can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where Mies van der Rohe's large, single-space, elegantly detailed, high-modernist glass-and-steel addition to the original building has been subdivided into a maze of little roomlike spaces with pastel-colored walls and carpeting.) These galleries seldom have real windows or authentic architectural detail, though. And there can be a nagging feeling that, like the department-store displays they resemble, they have been designed to sell you something.

Richard Meier had not been asked specifically to liven up the social scene in Atlanta. But social expectations were clearly in the air when he was awarded the commission to design the new building for the High Museum of Art. And when the abstract, formidably high-style, brilliantly white, light-filled new museum opened, its tremendous impact on the city had little to do with the art it housed but rather was a result of the visual excitement of the building itself, particularly its entry sequence and thrilling introductory atrium (the galleries had been pushed to the periphery). Like a fashionable club, it simply "caught on."

Meier says that even he was surprised to see how "things began to coalesce around" the new building. "It filled a void in the life of the city that no one had even identified," he says. "It became the place to be." Apparently unaware of the full range of exotic activities for which the museum is now being rented out, Meier volunteers, a little shyly, that he thinks they might be holding fashion shows there.

At the Louvre visitors may like to have their photographs taken in front of the Mona Lisa. But in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery's East Building, which was designed by I. M. Pei, was completed in 1978, and is a forerunner of the current type, visitors maybe hard-pressed even to find the galleries. These spaces have been wedged into the corners around the immense, lofty, glass-roofed central space through which run bridges, balconies, an escalator, and a mesmerizing parade of people (but rarely any art). Photograph-taking at that museum tends to occur at the underground shop-and-restaurant juncture between the old and new buildings, where through a glass wall a waterfall can be seen streaming down underneath the glassy tetrahedrons that Pei has strewn across the road at ground level.

(Pei has been busy in Paris, too. At this writing his enormous seventy-one-foot-high steel-and-glass pyramid is being completed in the Louvre's Cour Napoléon. A maquette on display there last fall showed that the huge open mall-like space beneath the pyramid, which will serve as the introduction to the new Grand Louvre, will have ribbons of escalators and a fancy hydraulic lift.)

THE COMMERCIAL TILT in design shouldn't be all that surprising, since, as the American Association of Museums (which represents every type of collection, including botanical gardens and zoos) likes to point out, "Museums are big business." Indeed, the art museum in particular has come in recent years to be especially valued for its usefulness as an economic tool. And its power as an element in real-estate development, neighborhood revitalization, and tourism has been informing the strategies of planners and elected officials from California to New England.

In Los Angeles, for example, about eight years ago the Community Redevelopment Agency set out to enliven a grungy part of that city's downtown by finding a developer for an 11.2-acre site in what is known as the Bunker Hill area. The developers who were awarded the contract got started on plans for a $1.2 billion mixed-use project they called California Plaza.

The CRA's policy was that at least one percent of the budget for any downtown development project had to be used to buy works of art to be displayed in and around the buildings. In the case of California Plaza, that was going to buy a lot of sculpture. But Edward Helfeld, who at the time was the director of the CRA (he now holds an equivalent position in San Francisco), learned that a mayor's advisory group was looking around for a site on which to build a museum for contemporary art, which, they had come to believe, no major city should be without. Helfeld and his colleagues were quick to realize that planting an art museum amid the offices and shops of California Plaza would be a way of bringing some real luster to the project. And with Mayor Tom Bradley's help and the acquiescence of the advisory group-who weren't getting their first choice for a site but were getting a free building—the set-aside for art for California Plaza was translated into a set-aside for a building to house art.

No one seemed to be daunted by the fact that there was no art: no collection, no promise of a collection. After some discussion the museum's trustees were permitted to select their own architect. They decided on Arata Isozaki. The design guidelines imposed by the developers were stringent, however, and the tortuousness of Isozaki's path to an approved design has become legendary.

The building had to be split into two parts, so that access (not merely logistic but visual) to the shops would not be obstructed from any point. It had to be kept low so that the views from (as yet unbuilt) residential towers would not be obstructed. The configuration had to conform, along with everything else in the development, to the structural grid of the concrete parking garage that sits underneath it all. Thus an art museum designed by a world-famous architect in a city known for the extraordinary quality of its light turned out to resemble, in one architect's words, "a subway station" and to have many of its galleries in underground darkness.

Isozaki appears to have done the best he could with MOCA (which did finally get some art), and parts of it are very strong-vivid, elegantly crafted materials (red Indian sandstone, brushed aluminum, white crystallized glass, onyx, copper) and powerful geometric forms (the pyramid, the vault). But the place of apparent importance, to which visitors naturally ascend after buying their tickets, has been given to the book and gift shop, which is located at the mall level. In order to reach the galleries, visitors must descend into a courtyard that serves as the outdoor seating area for the restaurant (the menu of which was the subject of a recent lengthy press release from MOCA) and walk from there, past the food, into a small, low-ceilinged lobby. Once inside, a visitor is drawn toward the light from the first, beautifully skylit gallery, and the space is not a disappointment. Nor are the sunny galleries that follow. Further along in the sequence, though, are galleries that had to be kept under street (or plaza) level-without even a skylight poking up-and they turn out to be artificially lit rectangular spaces that could be absolutely anywhere at all.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is being encouraged to build its new quarters in a proposed downtown real-estate development project called Yerba Buena Center. The $2 billion project is a big deal for San Francisco, where development has pretty much been strangled—but it has been stalled for some time. A 1987 editorial in the San Franciso Examiner urged everyone to get going on securing the participation of the SFMMA, which "could move the whole project forward." (Edward Helfeld says that although he did not suggest this strategy, he wouldn't be surprised if it had been adapted from California Plaza.)

In the town of North Adams, Massachusetts, a complex of nineteenth-century mills that had been adapted to serve as factories (now closed) is being eyed for conversion into what would be the "largest museum of contemporary art and architecture in the world"—MASS MOCA. Appropriate to the scale of this endeavor, not one but two of the most prominent and interesting architects now practicing—Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi—have been approached about collaborating on a renovation. The Massachusetts legislature has come up with $35 million worth of funding—about two thirds of the proposed budget—in the hope that the museum will be able to bring the whole town back from the economic brink it began to edge toward when the factories closed down. It seems clear, though, that a great deal more than a display of sculpture and architectural models will be needed if the museum is going to fulfill these extravagant hopes.

In recent memory museums that have been built primarily in the service of the art they house have been, for the most part, privately paid for and privately endowed: for example, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, the Yale Center for British Art, in New Haven, and Renzo Piano's Menil Collection, in Houston.

The North Adams experiment reminds us that the growing alliance between art museums and commerce is a paradoxical development. For if the commercial activities attached to museums can distort their purposes, they can also help to make their existence possible. That uneasy balance, however, is in danger of shifting.

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, points out that whether or not it makes the connoisseur comfortable, an exciting building designed by a famous architect is one of the best fund-raising tools a museum can have. He also describes the selling of scarves and the renting of halls as "public services." "Without those activities we couldn't even pay the guards," he says. "We would have to close the doors of the museum."