Opinion

Rethinking the “Bigger Is Better” Museum Model

Current museum expansions are hung up on the concept of size. Instead, could we rethink the “grow or die” museum mentality of the 1990s and 2000s?

Tony Smith, “Smoke (1/3)” (2005) (photo taken at LACMA by Gunnar Klack via Flickr)

Amidst the criticism of Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) recently county-approved proposal for the new Peter Zumthor building, there is a significant fixation on one aspect of the project: the loss of 10,000 square feet of gallery space. Agreed that this is not a small amount of gallery space, but I wonder why the new space has to be bigger to be better? Instead, could we rethink the “grow or die” museum mentality of the 1990s and 2000s and simultaneously hold, on parallel tracks, the notion that museums can consider buildings as to their usefulness and core functions (safely and enticingly displaying collections and special exhibitions) while simultaneously rethinking “outreach” initiatives as opportunities to learn, rather than to teach.

Curious about the extent of contemporary museums’ commitment to bigger spaces for art display, I took a look at recent expansions — both completed or in planning stages. When the second phase of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) re-development is complete next fall, its gallery space will have grown by 30%. And this is modest in comparison with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which will increase its public display space by 50%; the Whitney Museum of American Art, which grew by 100% in moving to Gansevoort Street; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art whose latest project resulted in 300% more gallery space. Clearly expansion is more than a costly trend. It is something institutions are focusing on, and feel they need.

LACMA’s proposed Zumthor building will invariably have its physical challenges (all buildings do), and whether it most resembles an Italian highway rest stop or an airport terminal, I’ll leave to the design critics. My point is that the loss of gallery space shouldn’t be the focus. Counting floor tiles tells us little without context. We should be looking to how the museum will use this new space, display art, and how it will engage its audiences.

Discussions of audience engagement have been a hot topic for some time, so it is surprising to me that additional criticism has been leveled at LACMA for a plan that would distribute some objects or groups of objects into a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. This idea is familiar to me given the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s (BECC) critique of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1960s during the Harlem on My Mind protests. As Aruna D’Souza notes in her book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, BECC demanded that the Met show works from its collection in spaces throughout the five boroughs as a counterweight to its perceived exclusivity on Fifth Avenue. It is certainly a critical time for LACMA to consider this approach in a city that is not only sprawling but increasingly neighborhood-constrained given the problematics of public transportation, and the mind-numbing traffic issues. Why not make it easier for people to encounter LACMA’s treasures in their own neighborhoods? Certainly, a pilgrimage to the mothership on Wilshire should be worthwhile, but depending on how far away you live, and how determined you are to see art, it might not be a casual excursion.

Further, I would look to the model instigated by the Underground Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2015, artist and Underground Museum founder, Noah Davis forged a partnership with then-MOCA Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth, to bring works from the collection to its space in Arlington Heights. As a place that is of this largely working-class Black and Latinx neighborhood, the Underground Museum houses not only works by Davis and other artists, but also, as Los Angeles Times writer Carolina A. Miranda put it “crackling dialogs between his work and that of other prominent artists, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.” The key to this kind of community-embedded work, from the perspective of the larger art institution, must be that it isn’t importing culture because there is some lack in the neighborhood, but rather to facilitate artistic production finding new meanings in the context of local conditions, culture, and art.

I often talk about how the Queens Museum, which I previously served as its director, “led from behind” when collaborating with neighborhood-based arts initiatives, particularly in the context of community organizing around cultural work. The bigger fish in the pond bear a greater responsibility to utilize their heftier budgets in these projects, as well as their leverage, when needed or requested. Queens Museum did this deftly in using its social and political capital with City Council members and the Department of Transportation to advocate for the redevelopment of Corona Plaza, a neglected public square that prior to renovation was a popular if under-utilized convening spot for local cultural organizations. (It is now a much-improved and highly used public space in the heart of Corona.) As Molesworth said of MOCA’s role in its project with the Underground Museum, “… the Underground takes the lead and we take the back seat.” I am completely behind this approach.

But these US-based initiatives aren’t the only models. The Louvre opened its Lens building, two hundred kilometers north of Paris, in 2012. The initiative has been an attempt to show the Louvre’s vast collections beyond its Parisian center. In 2011, the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, went a step further, lending its Buste de Femme (1943) by perhaps the world’s most famous artist, Picasso, to the International Art Academy Palestine for a display conceived of by artist Khaled Hourani, the academy’s director. The project took two years to plan, challenging many inter-institutional loan protocols from insurance and transport procedures, to display security, highlighting the conditions under which Palestinians live daily. And it brought to Ramallah a work by Picasso for the very first time. Another project, initiated by artist Thomas Hirschhorn, brought precious artworks from the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou into a makeshift museum in a Paris suburb. Made of plywood, nails, and construction tape, the structure that housed Hirschhorn’s Precarious Museum (Musee Precaire, 2004) certainly fit its name, but nonetheless housed works by Duchamp, Dali, Beuys, Malevich, Mondrian, Warhol, and Le Corbusier. Perhaps in a slightly different but related direction, I recently heard about a presentation Peju Layiwola made at the Rhode Island School of Design. In discussing her role as one of the few women of Yoruba and Benin heritage currently working in the same methods of bronze casting used in Benin since the 13th century, she had to travel to abroad to see one of these famous Benin bronzes (subject of great controversy, particularly among colonial nations who looted these objects in the 19th century).

In a December 2018 interview, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Anne Pasternak hit on something I’ve been thinking a lot about: what it takes to be a great museum. She said:

[I]n recent decades, it’s been more about expansion — expanding a museum’s footprint along with its budgets. Now, I think the job is really one of reinvention — of questioning the orthodoxies of the past and creating a sustainable, relevant, exciting path forward.

Pasternak’s germ of an idea is important because it gets us to rethink the structures institutions rely on to function. We need to think not only about their physical structures, but their governance, staffing, programming protocols, and strategies, which, more often than not, preserve the status quo and reinforce inequitable power relationships both within museums and in society more broadly.

At this moment in time, when museum staffs are trying to hold their leadership accountable for everything from wage suppression during capital expansion, to sources of funding, it would be appropriate to go beyond scale and square footage to assess both the viability and desirability of building initiatives. I would add that centering equity and access at museums in a structural sense is the only way to future relevance. And just maybe, if bigger institutions look to collaborations with community-based organizations, public libraries, and other organizations in our cities that bear important local histories, we can learn more about the art we have in our collections and how they function outside the walls of museums. We art experts could definitely learn from these experiences.

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