The Super-Sizing of American Art Museums

American art museums are experiencing an unprecedented growth spurt, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento to smaller museums elsewhere. Museum directors argue that the expansions will better serve the public's need for more exhibition space and modern amenities. Less altruistically, they maintain job security by ramping up fundraising and construction requirements, and gild their résumés with impressive credentials. Art collectors queue up to donate money for stylish wings that will bear their names. Cities herald the projects as cornerstones for mammoth downtown development and revitalization projects. The media provide the fanfare, lavishly covering the initial announcements, building progress, and grand openings.

But all this capital investment in high-profile architecture and fattened collections and programming -- this super-sizing of museums -- does not necessarily reward the art-viewing public. Museum directors and curators need to consider expansion plans more critically.

Often such plans result in oversized, over-designed new structures that veer away from an initial vision of intimacy that the museum founders envisioned between the patrons and the artwork. All too frequently, new museum space is not even used to display additional artwork, but rather to house cafés, gift shops, and administrative offices. Even when new construction does yield more exhibition space, the predominant hope of most museum directors is that the expansion will lure new donations by contemporary collectors. Work in storage tends to be viewed as unfashionable, irrelevant, or inferior. While new art may indeed come hither, it is less likely to sustain the museum's original atmosphere and, therefore, the goodwill of long-standing patrons.

While intimacy and meditation may not be as sexy as dazzling new architecture, they may do more to deepen the relationship between the visual arts and the community at large. Professional baseball and football did not become wildly popular because big stadiums are inherently compelling, but because people learned to love the games as children when they played and watched them on lowly sandlots.

Museums started by individuals or dedicated to individual artists tend to be among the quirkiest and most interesting to visit. In Philadelphia, Albert C. Barnes wanted his collection presented publicly in order to provide a warm educational experience. In 1922, he turned his 24-room mansion into the Gallery of the Barnes Foundation, and installed his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early Modern paintings. In the museum's charter he stated that the artwork -- which is hung, in the fashion of the 1920s, salon-style throughout the mansion -- was to remain as he installed it.

But the Barnes Foundation Board of Trustees, having overcome stiff legal opposition from local museum patrons, is determined to move Barnes' collection to a larger new building in downtown Philadelphia, nearer to the other art museums, in an effort to maximize revenue. Future generations may be able to buy trinkets and postcards at gift shops and have lunch in the café, but they will be deprived of viewing the collection in the unusual setting that Barnes envisaged would endure in perpetuity.

The ergonomic appeal, original charm, and traditional character of an old museum may also suffer on account of too much "improvement" too fast. Mega-museums can simply overwhelm viewers. A dizzying array of temporary exhibitions compete for attention alongside already abundant permanent collections, and after scurrying willy-nilly among them, visitors leave feeling as though they haven't seen anything in depth. While the Museum of Modern Art in New York, vastly expanded in 2004, in some ways remains a fine example of modernist restraint, many patrons now complain of its coldness and daunting size.

As a consequence of such disaffection, after an initial spike in attendance, visitors may dwindle -- especially in smaller markets. With higher maintenance and staffing costs for bigger buildings, funding shortfalls can end up making an expanded art museum less economically viable and imperil its position in the community. Some museums, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been forced to sell artwork from the permanent collection when fundraising efforts for new initiatives have fallen short of projected targets.

But there are alternatives to unchecked and ill-considered museum expansion that can preserve a neighborhood sense of tradition and the integrity of the viewing experience, while also making more art accessible to more people. Rather than altering existing buildings and collections to conform to an overhauled and frequently discomfiting vision, new museums or annexes could be established to offer a contemporary aesthetic experience -- along with the revenue-generating gift shops, cafés, and theaters that are primarily a product of our era.

GAP clothing chain founders Donald and Doris Fisher recently announced plans to build a new museum in San Francisco to house their extensive collection of 20th-century and 21st-century art, rather than donating it to an existing museum. Admirably seeking to enrich the community at a grassroots level, the Fishers said that they will include a gallery for high school students in the museum. The Fishers should be seen as the Barneses of our era. They appear intent on designing a museum, as Barnes did, with cutting-edge artwork of the highest quality and state-of-the-art installations but dedicated to a single collection. The Fishers' museum will not only be a place to preserve artwork that our current culture values but also a cohesive monument to our generation's experience of art.

Overall, the trend of expansion insensitive to local traditions and artistic ideals has been driven by museum boards whose collective eye has typically been on the bottom line and institutional prestige rather than community aesthetics. There is nothing improper about this preoccupation -- boards are obligated to ensure museums' financial integrity -- but it can produce myopia.

Accordingly, it falls to museum directors and curators to check the super-sizing of art museums. They are of course answerable to their boards, and cannot either rely upon or cede ground to patrons of the arts like the Fishers. But they can foster a healthy, competitive tension with their boards by presenting financially responsible museum alternatives to big new wings and massive cafeterias. One promising option is to preserve old buildings by converting them into new museums. The phenomenally successful Tate Modern (originally a late-Victorian power plant) in London and P.S. 1 (formerly a public school) in Queens are shining examples of this elegant solution at work. P.S. 1, in particular, has a modest scale that gives visitors a sense of control over their surroundings and better enables them to digest the art.

These new museums serve the needs of both expanding capacity through attractive funding opportunities and leaving traditional museums -- respectively, the Tate Britain and MOMA -- intact. The older museums thus do not risk alienating -- or, in the case of MOMA, further alienating -- their traditional visitors or donor base. Thus liberated from the administrative burden of overseeing multiple revenue sources, their curators and directors have more time to study their existing collections in depth, and to reinterpret them in a contemporary light that illuminates aesthetic linkages with newer collections without forsaking the original mission and identity of the old museums.

Willard Holmes, former director of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum -- the nation's oldest public art museum -- postponed its proposed renovation to ensure that future plans "expand the cultural reach of the museum" without artlessly "pouring old wine into a new bottle." By contrast, the St. Louis Art Museum chose to expand its existing building by 120,000 square feet (40 percent) rather than convert the old U.S. Custom House and Post Office -- a magnificent French Second Empire building completed in 1884 -- to a satellite museum. The museum's management feared that the latter course would have segmented its audience. Some might have argued that doing just that was precisely the point.