Does It Still Make Sense to Build an Art Museum?: Dispatches from Planning the William Eggleston Museum in Memphis

by Amy Whitaker

Spring 2011

When the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened its new Norman Foster wing in January, Eric Gibson wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “The museum world has changed. Gone are the days of “if you hang it, they will come.” As the American Association of Museums devotes its May annual meeting to the theme “The Museum of Tomorrow,” what does it mean for museums to look forward at a time when their building boom is coming to a close? Otherwise put, does it still make sense to build a museum today?

Such statements create existential pause in the few of us currently working on new museum projects—in this case, the William Eggleston Museum slated to open in 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee, the hometown of the artist many consider the father of color photography as a fine art form. As a Memphis native and—in the words of the local paper—an “international museum expert,” I joined the planning team as a soup-to-nuts consultant. We decided our aim would be to build an arts institution that invites real civic engagement, that organically becomes a vibrant part of the city as it exists.

In response to the question of why a new museum now, fortunately, vigilant self-questioning is built into the character of the project team. Or as the planning director, Mark Crosby, more bluntly challenged us, “What’s the point [of a new museum], other than to baby-sit your kids?”

Consider the overwhelming evidence that the idea of a new art museum has peaked:

1. The building boom is over.
In 2001, ArtNews published an article called “The Incredible Growing Art Museum.” In it, Blake Eskin chronicled what were, at the time, fifty-two pending expansion projects in the United States alone. All together, they would have added four million square feet of exhibition space at a combined total cost of $4 billion. In the intervening decade, some museums succeeded in opening beautiful new buildings, but with costs beyond the capital construction budgets:

When Yoshio Taniguchi’s renovated Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2004, the admissions price rose from $12 to $20, an increase so steep the artist Filip Noterdaeme suggested patrons pay in pennies—at an approximate weight of twelve pounds (http://www.homelessmuseum.org/hmu_pages/penniless.html).

When Renzo Piano’s “Modern Wing” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009, the delicate, filigreed fish skeleton of a building met critical acclaim but exerted some pressure on the museum’s finances. By its charter, the Art Institute is required to be open free to the public fifty-two days each year. In 2011, the museum quietly announced (and the Real Clear Arts blogger Judith Dobrzynski amplified) that its free days would become: all of January, the first part of February, and an unmemorable combination of odd Mondays and Wednesdays the rest of the year—difficult times for all but the most inveterate locals. It was a brilliant market segmentation strategy, but perhaps part of a larger cost in the museum building boom: a shift from public-minded to economic thinking.

If you believe that growth in museums—all those capital campaigns for expansion—is funded in significant part by people who have been successful in business, then it would make sense that the peak of the museum boom would follow after the peak of the market, as if museum support is a lagging economic indicator. And in fact, following the market crash of 2008, expansions seemed to peter out or remain on hold. Eric Gibson’s comment on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts seemed to be: It is not longer about the building, but the building in service to the art.

2. Museums are a mature industry.
Some other museums are still expanding. The Louvre announced that it would build a branch in Abu Dhabi. The architect Jean Nouvel was commissioned to design it at an estimated construction cost of $108 million. In the agreement, the government of Abu Dhabi would pay the Louvre $1.3 billion in fees—including a licensing agreement for the use of the Louvre name and management fees to advise on programming. The Guggenheim also announced a branch in Abu Dhabi. These projects are not new museums, but brand extensions of existing ones. In business theory, using brand extension as a strategy is a signal of a late stage of corporate life cycle. In the Boston Consulting Group’s famous “growth-share” matrix, a brand extension would be “low growth” and “high market”—a quadrant of their chart named “cash cow.” It is the point at which a company no longer makes new products but tries to milk existing ones for what they can.

3. Digital images are now better than the originals.
Some people would say museums have been entirely usurped by Google’s Art Project, the digitizing of collections with such remarkable clarity that you could see more online than in person. In the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously argued that the original object of art is always imbued with an “aura of authenticity” that trumps any copy. But what if the copy is better, providing more than the naked eye can see? If you could see the Reina Sofia from the comfort of your own sofa, is the practice of dealing with artifacts—physical paintings, sculptures or installations—out of date?

There is a basic irony of museums: Museums attempt to preserve the past unchangingly but to do so both they and the objects must change. Museums must evolve to adapt to the culture at large. The objects change by sheer fact of their separation from the world in which they emerged. There has always been that difference between the creativity of everyday life and the traditional museum setting. The artist Donald Judd’s home in New York, currently closed for renovation, includes an enormous dinner table, stacks of plates and a half-finished bottle of tequila. The experience of observing these artifacts must be a far cry from the lively party you have to imagine happened in his lifetime. Museums are, like Judd’s home, chameleons that can go from mausoleum-like pall to inspiring vibrancy, like a costume or puppets waiting to be brought to life. They are vehicles that need people and ideas, not just objects, to propel them forward.

In working on the Eggleston we started to develop a few central values or Sphinx-like riddles. How could we create a place that people would want to come to, not just feel that they should? How could we create a place that pulled people to it, not that expected people to be pushed by the incontrovertible importance of art? Again, as Eric Gibson wrote in the same piece on the MFA Boston, “Museum directors can no longer assume knowledge of or interest in art on the part of a public that has many more claims on its time and its wallet than when the museum boom began in the 1960s.”

Instead museums could do these three things:

1. Museums could be like great works of literature.
People don’t come to the museum to look at the museum but to be able to see themselves. It is the same way that great works of literature sometimes show us our own selves by taking our most inchoate, unformable thoughts and showing them back to us with lucidity and, if we’re lucky, kindness.

2. We would not be teaching appreciation but engagement.
The public’s conversation with the museum would not be a form of appreciation of objects—an endless, scripted, “Oh, how fascinating!” response to the roll-out of masterpieces—but a sense of being invited to participate. We weren’t going for edification but for expansiveness and traction, however subtle, on what it is to be a person in the world.

3. The public would feel a sense of invitation.
We would somehow cultivate feelings of public trust and a sense of public ownership. It isn’t going to be our museum but theirs—or all of ours.

These principles initially led to a funny and endless loop of pie-in-the-sky visions for how we would achieve them. We contemplated having an outdoor fireplace. We considered the importance of a bowling alley in the basement. We fantasized about having a caramel cake shack in the public grounds in front of the museum.

Then we realized that the magic bullet wasn’t our coming up with a building fixture that would be perfectly inviting as a public space. It was the sincerity in trying and the good faith attempt to ask other people what they thought. In short, we wanted the museum itself to be an art project, and a collaborative one. We started to develop an “Eggleston Questionnaire,” a list of interview questions. We would ask people to imagine—before the museum had been built—what their favorite room in the museum looked like. We would ask them to recall and describe the place outside their own home that feels most hospitable to them.

We wanted the museum to be a container in which people and ideas—the public and their own innate creativity—could come together and be inspired by contact with the art and life of someone who had already contributed an original point of view. To do that, the museum had to be pleasing without calling attention to itself, and to extend a warm welcome. It had to be a place Eggleston would hang out himself if it weren’t a museum of his art.

These criteria are basic but powerful. We were placing bets on the public life of art museums at a time when they had—in their building booms and their brand extensions, the admissions prices and the competitive strategies—become economic rather than public in their character. We were trying to pull museums back along the spectrum away from theme park, closer to library. Or, more ideally, we wanted museums to be like a library with a bar—not just a repository for great works of the human imagination but a space for the conversations they spark, not just a monument to creativity of the past, but a space for the emergence and collision of legitimately new ideas.

In actual fact, the history of modern art museums shares more with these aims than the current snapshot of a highly developed field suggests. Modern art museums were art projects unto themselves in their early days. In its early years, the Museum of Modern Art was as bold as any start-up. The founders were three women who met by accident traveling to Egypt and who later opened the doors to their museum a mere ten days after the market crash of 1929. Like entrepreneurs everywhere, they got by on great letterhead, courage and the help of their friends.

Instead of hiring a demonstrated leader of an already existing institution, they hired Alfred Barr, then twenty-seven years old and teaching art history at Wellesley College. He became the mythic founding hero of the institution, so visionary he was stone-cold fired by the trustees in 1943 (though kept on in a different post and later fully recognized for his contributions).

Like many other museums, that early “art project” nature allowed the museum to grow into a public institution. The best example of this is probably in 1958 when the museum caught on fire. As trustees were ferrying workers and works of art across the rooftop to the buildings of unsuspecting neighbors, members of the public gathered across the street to watch the building in smoke and flames. Unsolicited, people would walk across the street and leave a dollar or five dollars on the admissions counter and leave. They felt the museum was their own.

Whether Memphis ends up with a new bowling alley or a caramel cake stand, I hope the Eggleston will be a place that feels lively and creative but also as timelessly welcoming as a small town candy shop. We have the lucky presence of Eggleston, in his work and his person. Perhaps he will also sit at the bar on occasional days, very fine stemware in hand.