Conversation: What Makes Some Arts Buildings Successful and Others Not?
The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago opened in 2009. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Anyone paying attention to American cultural life has noticed a boom of art-centered buildings in cities across the country. They’ve been promoted as sources of civic pride, of rebuilding downtowns and as economic generators.
A new study takes what it bills as the first systematic look at this trend. What makes some buildings successful and others not? The study is called Set in Stone, and it looks at the building of museums, performing art centers and theaters from 1994 to 2008. It was done by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago.
I recently spoke two the two lead authors — Carroll Joynes, who is the co-founder and senior fellow at the center, and Joanna Woronkowicz, an associate at the center — about the study:
Read the transcript after the jump.
Watch Jeffrey Brown’s 2009 report about the opening of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
JEFFREY BROWN: Carroll, let me start with you. Fill in some of the details of the building boom itself. What kind of buildings, where have we seen it most? How would you characterize what happened in American cities?
CARROLL JOYNES: Periodically in the last 100 years there have been a series of building booms and many of our historic cultural institutions that people are familiar with in major cities are the result of those prior ones. This particular one we learned about through talking with arts consultants who were helping organizations across the country think about facilities, both new ones and major renovations of existing facilities. And what they noticed was a leaning towards building very large facilities and ones that seemed to them, in many cases, in excess of their needs or at least putting them at some risk because they were larger than appeared to be sustainable. We picked the period 1994 to 2008 for two reasons. One, because it was clear there was a great deal of building in that time, and we had that from a number of more informal sources. But we also knew that if you go back before 1994, people’s memories would be slim and perhaps somewhat distorted.
JEFFREY BROWN: And if you look at that period, as I said, Joanna, just to think about what drove these buildings. Some of it civic pride, certainly it’s economic factors. One of the things we all — everybody paying attention here remembers — is the so-called “Bilbao effect” of Frank Gehry’s building in Spain. And then, you know, I myself have done stories for the Newshour about many buildings in cities. Was part of it a kind of “me too,” a kind of building because other cities were and you needed to keep up or felt that need?
JOANNA WORONKOWICZ: We looked at the reasons for building from a variety of perspectives. We looked at it analytically, so we looked a demographic trends and it appears as if, you know, population rates changing, education levels increasing and median income levels increasing. But we also looked at from the perspective of the organizations. So we asked organizations why did you build? And there was the economic development reasons, source of civic pride was a reason, definitely. And “my neighbor’s building and my city wants a cultural institution as well,” so we saw that as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: So to the extent that things don’t always go right, tell us why not? What happens to make unsuccessful projects? Either one of you can start on that.
JOANNA WORONKOWICZ: Well the biggest reason of why not is we saw a lot of financial unsustainability happen after these projects. So this really did weaken a lot of the organizations that pursued projects. And this was really the main reason we started the study, was because we cared about these organizations and we cared about what happened to them after they pursued a project.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are these things that could have been seen in the planning project? Or things that came up afterwards like the economic slide in the country? Where are you pinpointing the problem? Where does it come up?
CARROLL JOYNES: One of the things that we noticed that came across as a very clear pattern is that, if these projects are conceived and pushed through initially by a core group on a board, or by civic leaders, if there isn’t an opportunity very early for people to express some kind of skepticism or ask questions, or see if this is really something that is needed and is a sustainable idea, it tends to go forward anyway and that’s when the trouble begins. It’s very rare that the projects actually stop. And so what happens is that is if there is unrealistic financial projecting into the future — and in the arts, it is our hypothesis that it is much more difficult in terms of looking at supply and demand in a data-driven way — it’s much harder than say in the realm of healthcare and building hospitals, or education and building schools, because you have much clearer idea of your population and average statistics per need. These are often, as you pointed out in your introduction, Jeffrey, these are aspirant projects. Ones for people aspiring to something. And sometimes judgment, especially collective judgment, is not sufficient to discipline the whole process such that they can emerge with a really sustainable facility.
JEFFREY BROWN: You looked at some very specific examples, so why don’t you give us one or two to try to make this as concrete as possible, so to speak.
CARROLL JOYNES: The four that we have the case studies on the website are available for anyone to read. The AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas is a new facility. Underwent great strain, and it’s in the middle of great strain right now, trying to get its bearings. The Art Institute of Chicago is over 100 years old and they were taking the long view of building a stunning new wing by Renzo Piano. It’s been a great success, but it did cost more than — by quite a bit — than they initially projected. It has cost more to sustain than they initially projected. But because they have a half billion dollar plus endowment they are at least able to weather the storm and they are seeing this from the point view of 25 to 30 years in the future. But many organizations do not have that luxury of having that kind of financial cushion. And then finally, the Taubman Museum in Roanoke is a fascinating story. I just want to underscore that our whole purpose for doing this study is to help organizations going forward by learning what pitfalls existed for organizations over the past 15 years, and what positive practices helped other organizations build really strong sustainable structures. And so the Taubman is instructive, but it’s a hard story. And similarly, the Long Center in Austin Texas is a strong organization, but all of these projects go through hurdles, difficulties, get sometimes derailed somewhat they go through enormous personal changes because these are stressful projects and the average length from conception to completion is nine years, so it’s very hard sometimes to keep a project completely on track. These four, each quite different, but they give very vivid examples.
JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of bottom-line questions do you suggest for people thinking about this in their own city, going forward? What questions must they ask and answer before they proceed?
JOANNA WORONKOWICZ: We do come up with a set feasibility guidelines in the study and these come from looking at completed projects. And we identified those that were more successful and there were common themes that came out. So one of these bottom-line questions is, what is the _need_ for the project? And you know, really deciphering between a need and want is an incredibly important. Listening to the community, having connections with the community. And I would also say leadership. Before you start a project, do you have leadership in place? And so does that mean do you have that one leader that will start the project and that will finish the project? Because those projects that we saw have one leader from the start to finish really did remarkably better than those that did not.
JEFFREY BROWN: You would think all of those are sort of clear, you know, almost obvious things before buildings– taking on such a major undertaking. But experience suggests not.
CARROLL JOYNES: I would say that one of the striking things is that when responsibility is disbursed in a board and among the board members, and an executive director, and the senior staff, sometimes the decision making process gets quite murky. And that was one the key things that we were looking at, and that’s why we did over 500 interviews. That’s one of the really interesting things that emerges, is how the process of thinking through what these organizations are doing — and trying to sometimes retroactively rationalize a particular decision if suddenly the costs go up by 50 percent or 100 percent or 150 percent — you can find this in the records of the decision making, but sometimes it’s quite startling, frankly, to see how these things unfold. And you think, how did they end up in this position? And that’s why they had to be confidential, of course, is because people are not going to talk about this process unless they are protected.
JOANNA WORONKOWICZ: There is also a fair amount of turnover that occurs throughout the process of these projects, and so that is something to recognize as well. Most likely there is going to be a good amount of turnover on your board and in your executive leadership. So again, kind of keeping in the mind that you need that one leader to bring it through–
CARROLL JOYNES: Yes.
JOANNA WORONKOWICZ: No matter what happens, is very important.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask one last question because I’m curious. It goes beyond the years of your study here, but — and either one of you who wants can take this — but where are we now? Has this boom ended or evolved or changed? What do you see?
CARROLL JOYNES: The boom has ended because the general economic crisis we’ve been in the last several years has put a bit of a damper on it. But already I’ve received several emails from organizations across the country saying, we’re just about to embark on such a project and this is really helpful because we don’t have any way to frame our questions, and now we have that. And interestingly, most of the calls I’ve received have been from the south, and that is where we found most of the growth taking place in the period we looked at, and most of them were, in many cases, surprisingly in quite small towns as opposed to major cities. So there is still a lot of activity. There are things being planned. There is still a great deal of money out there, but our notion is you can build smart, you can build a very important facility that meets the needs of the community and you can aspire to something great, but you really need to think about sustainability over many years into the future and not just getting it built and opening the doors.