The Future of Museums: The Guggenheim, MoMA, and the Tate Modern

By Loughery, John | The Hudson Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Future of Museums: The Guggenheim, MoMA, and the Tate Modern


Loughery, John, The Hudson Review


It was big-and Babbitt respected bigness in anything; in mountains, jewels, muscles, wealth, or words.

-Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt

An ACQUAINTANCE FORMERLY AFFILIATED with the Guggenheim Museum put it this way: when the director of a major museum is more concerned with real estate than with art, it's time to move on. Wise words. But are they entirely fair? Doesn't a museum director have to think about space, finances, and public image in order to serve the artworks in his or her care? We should never forget the nightmare that the New York Historical Society awoke to after years of slumbering in the land of benign neglect; an irreplaceable museum almost went under in the early 1990s. Yet the New York Historical Society experience is an extreme at one end of the spectrum. At the other end, as my acquaintance implied, a troubling aura of Babbittry masquerading as aesthetic savvy informs the museum culture of our day, an aura that equates size and sexiness with quality. Consider: the Guggenheim is eyeing an area on the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan for a floating version of Frank Gehry's colossus, the Guggenheim Bilbao, complete with a park and skating rink. The Museum of Modern Art has already begun construction on a $650 million expansion, having taken over and demolished the entire Dorset Hotel on West 54th Street. The Tate Modem in London opened in the spring of 2000 and, at 135,000 square feet, upped the ante considerably. A pattern, as they say, emerges.

None of this is happening overnight or without fair warning. "The Project for a New Guggenheim Museum in New York City," for instance, was a well-attended exhibition last summer at the Fifth Avenue site that made the case for the museum's downtown expansion. As an architectural exhibition and a public-relations maneuver, it was beyond clever-it was dazzling, flawless. I don't for a minute believe in this dismal project. In fact, my heart sinks at the thought of this postmodernist cacophony taking up residence on the Wall Street waterfront. What works in Bilbao in northern Spain is not necessarily right for the most congested section of an already grotesquely swollen island in North America. But the razzle-dazzle of the Gehry show left no stone unturned in its vigorous lobbying crusade. (The visitors' comments book at the entrance was, not surprisingly, filled with grateful, even worshipful reactions. No one left the exhibition feeling anything but thrilled, apparendy-or else the spoilsports, like me, gave up when it came to a terse registering of our doubts in the book.) A blown-up color photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright dominated one wall, offering a benediction, as it were, while a photo and video of the exterior of the Guggenheim Bilbao dominated another wall, accompanied by a quietly thumping musical soundtrack, with a steady insistent beat meant to evoke a feeling of both suspense and inevitability. Massing, conceptual, study, and site models for the building and dozens of color photographs of the same were crisply laid out before us, along with two gigantic toscale models of Lower Manhattan with Gehry's museum in place, one with teeny-tiny trucks unloading art at the back door and teeny-tiny people wandering beneath the sloping titanium-covered roofs. Wall plaques threw numbers aplenty at us. Projected yearly museum attendance: a whopping 3,000,000. Jobs created: 5,000. Increase in city and state tax revenues: I forget, but enough to solve all our social ills, I'm sure. What we did not get more than a glimpse of (by way of one artist's rendering) was what this Orwellian carnival would look like, or feel like, inside. Yes, inside: as in where we would be spending time looking at paintings rather than being awestruck by Gehry's devilish talent for altering New York's boxy skyline.

Part of my resistance to this elaborate plan and glossy presentation- to the whole late twentieth-century trend toward glitz and grandiosity in museum construction-has to do with a fundamental lack of trust about those who will lead us into the Promised Land. …

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