Art and Everything Else

In today’s art museum, what’s on the walls is only part of the story

| January / February 2003

ASK FIRST-TIME visitors to the Getty Center in Los Angeles what they enjoyed most, and chances are they won’t gush about the museum’s collection of medieval choir books; they’ll react to the vast new building itself, a sort of hilltop arts fortress designed by the acclaimed Richard Meier. Nor will a tourist to London’s recently opened Tate Modern—a huge defunct power station stunningly refitted by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron—be likely to hold forth on the Francis Bacon sketches. As the now iconic design of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, continues to prove, what’s hanging on a museum’s walls is not necessarily what motivates people to push through the front door. Museums designed by hip architects are the new darlings of city boosters hoping to distinguish their metropolis from every other burg.

While adding zing to urban landscapes is an important role of the contemporary museum, that’s not its only duty. Thanks in part to shrinking federal arts funding, as well as a desire on the part of museum administrators to reach deeper into the communities they serve, museums are functioning less as mere containers for artifacts and more as town squares. They must be, in the words of Bonnie Pitman, deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art, “more than repositories of the past.” Writing in a special issue of the education journal Daedalus (Summer 1999) devoted to the future of museums, Pittman makes the case that “museums are cultural, educational, and civic centers in our communities . . . they are theaters and movie houses, job training programs, schools and day-care centers, libraries and concert halls.”

The ambitious redesign plan for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, includes a brand new gallery building and a spacious Educational and Research Center that, when the building is completed in 2005, will house not only library and curatorial facilities, but also auditoriums, classrooms, and teacher-training workshop spaces. When Walker Art Center in Minneapolis drew up its priority list for an expansion to its current building, at the top was a desire to provide, in the words of director Kathy Halbreich, “a safe place for unsafe ideas.” To that end, the museum hired Herzog & de Meuron (the Tate Modern team) to design a structure that focuses on engaging the audience. The expansion will offer a variety of environments—from formal galleries to gardens to public lounges—that will allow visitors to respond to art in both formal and informal ways. The building’s exterior will not be made of marble, or brick, or Frank Gehry’s signature titanium, but of a transparent fabric (similar to the material used for the Denver airport’s roof) that will (literally and metaphorically) make the boundary between museum and city more porous.

One state over in Wisconsin, the recently opened Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum is anything but low key. Perched on the shore of Lake Michigan, the building is a dramatic addition to a 1957 Eero Saarinen modernist gem. The pavilion, the first building in the United States to be designed by celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, manages to remind the viewer of both Saarinen’s soaring TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport and a dinosaur-sized seagull taking flight. And its “civic” function is dramatically literal: It’s linked to downtown Milwaukee by a 200-foot suspended pedestrian bridge, which turns the museum into a major pathway between the city and the lakefront. According to Brian Ferriso, senior director of curatorial affairs, the enthusiasm generated by the dynamic new addition has actually made people interested in what’s inside. “People have been reintroduced to the collections,” he says. “There are more people in the old building than ever.”

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