After a COVID contraction, museums are expanding again

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After a COVID contraction, museums are expanding again
Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, Sept. 4, 2019. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced museums to close for months, cut staff and reduce their expenses, several of them have nevertheless moved forward on ambitious renovations or new buildings. Lelanie Foster/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- The Portland Museum of Art in Maine is planning a $85 million expansion that will double the size of its campus. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is constructing a $431 million Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. The $10 million Bob Dylan Center opened in May in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced museums to close for months, cut staff and reduce their expenses, several of them have nevertheless moved forward on ambitious renovations or new buildings.

How to explain the disconnect? How can institutions be physically expanding when they’ve also been financially contracting? In some cases, museum leaders say, their capital projects were well underway. Other projects were still in the design phase, allowing for adjustments to scope and schedule. But museum directors also said it was important to balance ambitiously thinking big with judiciously pulling back.

“It fuels the recovery,” said Ellen Futter, president of the Natural History Museum, who plans to end her 30-year tenure when the Gilder center opens next year. “It helps prepare for the next phase. You need the energy and the steam behind it. It’s kind of like driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator and then gently adjusting the pressure on each pedal.”

Building projects have long been important to cultural institutions as a way to generate excitement (come see the new wing!) and to drive fundraising; donors are more likely to give to bricks and mortar than to operating expenses, particularly if it means the opportunity to get their names on the door.

The attention such capital efforts can bring to an organization was made especially clear by the opening of the Guggenheim’s branch in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997, which transformed an obscure European town into a major tourist destination. In the 25 years since, many institutions have chased their own Bilbao effect while also trying to meet their essential physical needs.

During the pandemic, however, museums had the opportunity to seriously reassess those needs, particularly in light of people’s changing work habits and the country’s intensified consciousness around issues of diversity and equity.

“Are we building the right building?” said James Steward, the director of the Princeton University Art Museum, regarding its new building, designed by David Adjaye. “Are we giving ourselves enough future-proofing?”

That “future-proofing” has meant trying to build in as much flexibility as possible, Steward said, so that if the project turns out to have been too heavy on social gathering spaces or discreet education spaces, for example, the proportions can be adjusted.

If there is one thing the pandemic taught the Princeton museum, however, it is that people still want to show up in person. “Our audiences are hungering for an authentic experience, the work of art placed in front of them,” Steward said.

At the same time, given the feasibility of digital learning, “I think we have to give people a reason to want to come and cross our threshold,” he added, “the sense that coming to a public program in person has value.”

Similarly, the Portland museum, which is adding roughly 60,000 square feet to its existing building of 38,000 square feet, is seeking to be responsive to its visitors, to draw them in with less formal spaces where art is being made on the premises.

There will be spaces where visitors make art, get messy and build objects in a workshop setting, where artists can explore their practice through a residency or public performance. People can also simply relax and hang out, and community organizations can hold town hall forums on a moment’s notice rather than through monthslong planning.

“The concept we’re working on is trying to put creativity on display and making the program more visible, making people the center of the building,” said Mark Bessire, the museum’s director. “Because of COVID and the social justice movement, our community was like, ‘Let’s turn the museum inside out.’”

The Queens Museum in New York City is finally completing a renovation, the first phase of which was completed in 2013. This second phase involves the less sexy aspects of the project — assuring there is full disability access, facade repair and collection storage. “What it will give us is a completed museum,” said Sally Tallant, president and executive director. “That kind of stuff is very important.”

Next year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European painting galleries will reopen after an extensive renovation, and the museum is proceeding with the transformation of its galleries for Oceania and Americas, the Near East and modern and contemporary art.

But rather than discussing these as expansions, Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said he prefers to describe them as a “recontextualization.”

“These spaces will not only reflect the most recent scholarship and today’s most thoughtful curatorial voices,” he said, “but also emphasize the interconnectedness of cultures and the inherent narratives of objects.”

To be sure, larger buildings usually mean higher operating costs. And taking on that additional overhead is bound to be challenging for institutions still building back from their diminished state during the pandemic.

But arts leaders maintain that exciting programming in energized spaces leads to strong attendance. The Portland museum is aiming to increase its annual number of visitors to as many as 500,000 from 175,000.

“It’s kind of like, if you build it, they will come,” said Futter of the Natural History museum. “People are hungry for this. It will drive our ongoing recovery and a return to the new normal.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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