It is a stock art-world tale. In 1949, Guggenheim Museum director James Johnson Sweeney squared off against architecture's reigning genius, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was designing the museum's landmark Fifth Avenue building. Wright fought for the interests of his architecture; Sweeney defended the interests of art. Wright won. The result was a remarkable work of architecture and a difficult place to show art.
The story captures the often open disdain art-world insiders feel for the architects who design museums. The implication is that the greater the architect's reputation, the more art suffers.
In the last few years, the completion of a number of high-profile museum designs has only reinforced that cynicism. The opening in 1997 of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Richard Meier's Getty Center in Los Angeles created a new audience for architecture. Since then, museums everywhere have launched ambitious building programs to raise their profiles. Among the most recent are two new Guggenheim museums in Las Vegas, both by the radical Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Tadao Ando's Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis and a major addition to the Milwaukee Museum of Art by Santiago Calatrava.
That trend shows no sign of slowing. Zaha Hadid's Museum of Contemporary Art in Cincinnati and Diller & Scofidio's Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston are scheduled to open in 2004. An $800-million expansion of New York's Museum of Modern Art, designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, will be unveiled in 2005. UN Studio's addition to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., is scheduled for completion in 2006, as is Gehry's addition to the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. And Koolhaas is working on the design for a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Architects have welcomed this attention as proof of the profession's growing cultural relevance. But many art world insiders are skeptical. Increasingly, architecture has become the central focus, and, in the process, it has pushed art into the background.
"I think museums have emerged as the primary civic buildings of their time," says Glenn D. Lowry, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, "and that has led to competition among institutions to create the most spectacular buildings imaginable. The assumption is that the building will galvanize a community and ignite the kind of financial support that would later lead to a better collection, a bigger endowment. But that's a tenuous proposition. In many cases, the buildings have far outstripped the importance of the collections."
Indeed, the diminishing importance of displaying art in the art museum is nothing new. For at least two decades, museums have been courting bigger audiences to pump up attendance. As a result, the identity of the art museum has radically changed. Art is now one component in a constellation of activities that the contemporary museum provides, including bookstores, restaurants, theaters and gift shops. And the definition of the art museum's function has become more elusive than ever.
Architecture has contributed to that instability. The desire of many museum boards to make a strong statement with their buildings has encouraged architects to break old conventions. And that new sense of freedom has sometimes led to muddled results. But just as often, architects have imbued these works with a high level of creative energy, showing a deep respect for the art their buildings house.
These architects are proving that art and architecture can not only coexist, they can engage in a lively creative dialogue, one that ups the cultural ante for both.
More often than not, when a museum design fails, the fault can be traced to the motives of the institution's board. Many museums see a high-profile building project as a convenient marketing tool. A second-rate institution may use architecture to hide the mediocrity of its collection. The assumption is that the average museum visitor is only mildly knowledgeable about art, and that the museum has to provide a host of distractions to hold the visitor's attention.
An example is the $1.2-billion Getty Center. Meier's design conceived the Getty as a temple for high art, set high above the city on a secluded hillside in Brentwood. The Getty's collections are housed in a series of interconnected pavilions, organized around a tranquil, central court. The galleries, an elegant enfilade of well-lighted rooms, are perfectly fine places to view art.
But the galleries have to compete with a number of other activities.