State of the Art: It's the Age of Museums-Not the Musty Kind, but Ultramodern Showplaces That Are Betting on Big on Marketing Culture to Middle America

Newsweek, March 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

State of the Art: It's the Age of Museums-Not the Musty Kind, but Ultramodern Showplaces That Are Betting on Big on Marketing Culture to Middle America


As a glacial wind whipped off Lake Michigan, architect Santiago Calatrava side-stepped the ice-skimmed mud puddles to inspect his breathtaking new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Even unfinished, with building cranes still hovering, the structure was startling: a white steel-and-glass pavilion jutted out over the edge of the lake like a ship's prow, while on the other side, a sleek white footbridge cantilevered toward the downtown skyline. The local response to the design surprised the museum's director, Russell Bowman. "I expected it to be controversial, but I was wrong," he says. "Within months people were saying, 'Oh, it's going to be our Sydney Opera House'."

Something, however, was missing. The Spanish-born architect pointed toward the spine of the glass-roofed pavilion, which was awaiting the attachment of an incredible apparatus--a 200-foot-wide birdlike sunscreen, made of space-age carbon fiber, with "wings" that will move to shade the building below. The "brise soleil," as Calatrava refers to it, turned out to have some engineering glitches, and may not make the official opening of the museum's new space in September. Not that Calatrava doubts the thing will fly. "It's not that unique a piece," he says, shrugging. But eventually the bird must alight--it's already the logo on the museum's stationery, and local boosters are counting on it to become the new icon for a city that's always been most famous for brewing beer.

Milwaukee isn't alone in pinning its ambitions on a radical new museum. Across the country, more than 25 major art institutions--and many more smaller ones--are planning or already constructing new buildings. There have been museum-building booms before (as recently as the 1980s), but never on this scale. When most of the current projects are finished, more than $3 billion in capital funds will have been raised, mostly from private donors. Naturally, the boom economy of the past decade has propelled these projects, but even in the current shakier climate, most museums say their plans are going forward, and new ones keep being announced. Last month alone, the Whitney Museum in New York hired the hot Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., chose two other Netherlanders, Ben Van Berkel and Caroline Bos, to plan an expansion, and Tadao Ando of Japan was selected to design the new museum for Alexander Calder's sculpture in Philadelphia.

That avant-garde architecture is playing such a leading role in marketing these projects--both to potential benefactors and to the public at large--is a sea change in the culture. Architects have joined the celebrity milieu, led by Frank Gehry, who became the most famous one in the world with his spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. "When you're a museum creating a building, you may be creating the most important work of art in your collection," says David Levy, director of the Corcoran Museum, which has hired Gehry to add an off-the-wall wing to its neoclassical building in downtown Washington. And the embrace of high-style design isn't just a coastal phenomenon--some of the wildest designs are headed for the heartland. Take Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born Londoner who's designed a radical glass museum with tilting floors for the busiest corner in downtown Cincinnati. Or look at Berlin-based Daniel Libeskind, architect of the stark, zigzagging Jewish Museum in that city, who's designing museums in both Denver and San Francisco. One striking aspect of the boom is the global talent: apart from Gehry and one or two others, most of the big projects are being designed by some of the coolest architects from Europe and Japan.

This new museum architecture is not only shaping the identity of institutions, it's symbolizing the aspirations of communities. Many American cities have been making a comeback, as the 2000 Census figures confirm, and museums are now seen as urban jump-starters, capable of attracting hordes of visitors, good press and even new business.

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