Art and Everything Else

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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