Museums constantly have to address the lack of space they have to display artwork in their ever-expanding collections. When faced with this issue, enlarging a museum’s gallery space appears to be the logical solution and, now, the norm. In some circumstances, it allows a museum to prosper and shine. However, the expansion is a risk and if it is unsuccessful it could destroy the integrity of the museum. In the past five years, many major museums have undertaken expansions on a variety of levels. Some have made the news, for both good and bad reasons. All the critics ask, “do the pros outweigh the cons? What is the cost to the museum, beyond financially? Is the original mission damaged? The collection? How does this change the course of the museum’s future?”
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is currently deliberating the expansion of the Museum by opening a second downtown location. The expansion would allow the Museum to display more of their collection as it has grown from 2,000 to 18,000 works since they entered their current location in 1966, which only has enough room to display about 150 works (less than 1% of the permanent collection).
The expansion, designed by Renzo Piano, would afford the Whitney six new floors, which is more than twice the size the Museum is now. However, the notion of expansion has caused the Board to split in their decision-making. Questions are being raised about the cost of the new building, the cost of maintaining and running two buildings, and whether or not they should abandon their current building on the Upper East Side designed by Marcel Breuer.
Yet Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, explains in this article that the downtown site is necessary if the Museum wants to stay current. He also discusses that a vertical expansion of the uptown building would not work not as it would ruin the integrity of the Breuer building and not lend itself well to exhibiting the kind of art made today. The main objective, he sums up, is for a museum to create exhibits that are awe-inspiring and keep viewers coming back for more. Therefore, do you think that museums could accomplish this goal even if they could only display a limited amount of works? Or is more space and more dynamic space a key factor?
The expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has also stirred a vast amount of controversy after the announcement of their plans to expand since, according to her will, if anything within Museum’s holdings are altered, the entire collection and the building must be turned over to Harvard University. Bostonians are proudly protective of her wishes and concerned over whether the expansion threatens the very identity of the Museum that is the unique expression of a single collector’s vision.
Furthermore, Gardner’s collection is one of the most beloved in the city and has not been moved since 1924. However, the Museum has suffered over the years as immediately following Gardner’s death the entryway to the museum was shifted, which caused visitors to lose the impact of stepping from the dark brick corridor directly into the sunlight-filled courtyard. The addition of a small contemporary gallery space was plugged into the Museum in the 1930s and a café and bookstore were added in the 1970s.
The numbers of visitors to the Museum have greatly expanded since Gardner’s time, causing wear and tare within the small museum. The design for the expansion (also by Renzo Piano) calls for a new building that would contain a performance hall, apartments for artists-in-residence, and offices, all placed behind the existing museum.
The Museum has faced challenges in connecting the expansion to the existing building, and settled on the solution of a glass corridor connecting the old and new building. This only requires moving a wall and a sarcophagus in the original museum, which will otherwise remain exactly as it is now. The overall goal was simply to make sure they did not change the experience of the Museum, only enhance it. Bostonians are generally convinced that they have been succesful at mainting the Gardner’s integrity. What do you think of the proposed designs? Would Mrs. Gardner approve?
In 2006, the New Britain Museum of American Art celebrated the opening of its recent addition, the Chase Family Building. Prior to the addition, the Museum was in what used to be a private home with small rooms for exhibition, and could only display 250 works. The new expansion affords us the opportunity to display at least 500 works and around 15 changing exhibitions a year. The striking glass facade marks the entrance of the new building, which is built in sections that emulate the original house.
However, the display of the Museum’s collection is not limited to its twelve gallery exhibits as works also adorn the museum’s new café and multi-purpose room. as well as the offices that now fill the house. Furthermore, Sandy Litchfield, an artist from Amherst, MA, painted a trail along a stream directly onto the walls of the women’s restroom. In the men’s restroom, she painted a walk around a pond. In addition, visitors may sit down on specially artist- comissioned benches while touring the galleries, or enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden around the Museum on a sunny day. The house now contains an art lab for children, a library, an art studio, and offices, and is linked to the new building by a glass hallway that doubles as a gallery space.
It is evident that all three museums are in search of the best possible ways for visitors to experience their collections. In this boom of museum expansion with The Metropolitan Museum of Art having just opened their new American Wing and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston set to open their own in the fall, as well as the Harvard Art Museum aiming to open its renovated Cambridge complex in 2013, this appears to be a growing trend among museums.
Is it the right decision for every museum? Do you think that it will cause some museums to lose their character? Could this trend in museum expansion change the face of the museums in the future? When is addition of a new wing or building the right solution? When is it not?