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Surprise! Study Finds US Arts Orgs Overbuilt in the Last 2 Decades

The Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, opened in 2008 in the midst of the Bilbao fever that had gripped the museum world. Unfortunately, a few years later the museum attendance didn’t reflect the enthusiasm of its builders (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Much has been said and speculated about the US arts building boom of the late 1990s/early 2000s, with expansions, renovations and new starchitect-designed buildings rampant among arts institutions. But what were the actual results and costs of all these projects? Were they successful? Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center set out to answer these questions, conducting a study of more than 700 building projects at over 500 organizations between 1994 and 2008, with costs for the projects ranged anywhere between $4 million and $335 million. The center released the study, titled “Set in Stone,” yesterday, and while some of the findings are surprising, they tend to confirm what many people probably already suspected.

The American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is probably the most iconic of the failed starchitecture monuments to American museum hubris. (image via creativecultivation.blogspot.com)

At the heart of “Set in Stone” is the conclusion that arts organizations generally overspent and overbuilt. The boom was fueled by an assumption, across nearly all of the organizations, that new facilities would bring in bigger audiences and more money. But it didn’t work out that way for many of them. As one of the study’s seven authors, Carroll Joynes, said in the press release, “It’s not an automatic, ‘you build it, and they will come.’”

Among the reasons the study lists for why a building or expansion may not have produced the intended effect are the often long timelines for such major projects, making the needs and demands of the community hard to predict accurately. It also notes that buildings tended to suffer when they didn’t really fit with the mission of an organization, when they were pet projects for individual donors or leaders or “when they became signature pieces for leading architects who ended up designing a significantly more expensive building than the organization could afford to build or maintain.”

Most amazingly, the study found that more than 80 percent of the projects ran over budget, some by as much as 200 percent. “The initial cost projects for some of these structures were frequently extremely (and unrealistically) low, making the final tab much more expensive than originally forecast,” the press release says.

Other interesting factoids include:

  • the South saw the biggest increase in cultural buildings,
  • performing arts centers were built more than any other kind of space,
  • and the New York area spent the most on these projects, for a total tally of $1.6 billion,
  • with LA in second place, spending $950 million.

The complete study, as well as recommendations by the authors for arts organizations thinking about future expansion, can be found at the University of Chicago’s Culture Policy Center website.

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