From the August/September 2015 Issue:

Art & Antiques: The Ever-Growing Museum

    By: John Zeaman |

Why do art institutions keep getting bigger?

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enlarge | The Whitney as seen from the Hudson River. Photo by Karin Jobst, 2014/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum
We live in an age of relentless museum expansion. For the past several decades, it seems, museums everywhere have been sprouting wings, building annexes, gutting and renovating. And when adding on isn’t feasible, they open branch museums or pull up stakes altogether and erect a new, roomier building somewhere else.

So it happened recently with the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. In a move that once might have seemed unthinkable, the Whitney turned its back on its choice uptown address and iconic “brutalist” building and put up a new, much bigger museum in the city’s Meatpacking District. The new building is not much to look at from the outside—it could easily be a hospital or a business headquarters, however, it has twice as much gallery space as the old museum, not to mention a huge glass lobby, terraces for outdoor art, an auditorium-theater space, an education center and other extras.

Meanwhile, the old Whitney building has been taken over by the ever-expanding Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has dubbed it Met Breuer (after its architect, Marcel Breuer). The Met will use the building to display its modern and contemporary collection, at least until it finishes redesigning the wing for that art on its home turf. Met Breuer’s classical modernist holdings will put it in direct competition with an institution 21 blocks south: the Museum of Modern Art, which is undergoing yet another expansion after gobbling up the former American Folk Art Museum, itself the victim of a too-ambitious expansion.

So what’s going on? Why should physical growth be so important in such a high-minded enterprise— the display of art—where quality is supposed to trump quantity?

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enlarge | The new Whitney Museum of American Art includes spacious galleries, an auditorium-theater space and an education center. Photo © by Nic Lehoux/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum
A Numbers Game
What you repeatedly hear is that too many fine works are languishing in closets for lack of room. “We can currently exhibit only 10 percent (or 5 percent or 2 percent) of our collection!” the argument goes. “The rest is locked away in storage!” People outside the museum world are understandably shocked to hear of this state of affairs. Museum professionals, however, know this is the norm. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, owns 1,221 Picassos. It typically exhibits no more than 25 of them, which is about two percent. Would you really want to see 1,000 or more Picassos on a typical visit? Would you still feel ready to see the hundreds of other artists represented in the Modern’s collection? Instead, the museum rotates them.

Even after a major expansion, the ratio of displayed works to stored ones changes very little. The Whitney, for example, owns about 22,000 works. Its inaugural show, which fills the entire museum, uses 800 pieces from the permanent collection—or about 3.6 percent. No amount of expansion will ever put more than a fraction of a museum’s holdings on display.

And sometimes, the need to put more art on the walls is only a minor consideration in the case for expansion. Consider the Frick Collection. This is a house museum dedicated, for the most part, to the collection of 19th century tycoon Henry Clay Frick (about a third of its works have been acquired since his death). In addition to three Vermeers, the museum has incredible works by Veronese, Whistler, Velazquez and Rembrandt as well as such masterpieces as Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert, Claude Lorrain’s The Sermon on the Mount and the wonderful Progress of Love murals by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

With its marriage of art and decoration, its trickling fountains and mood of contemplation, the Frick is as close to a perfect museum experience as you will find anywhere. And yet, last summer the Frick announced plans for a 40,000-square-foot addition that would have sacrificed a beloved garden by the great British landscape artist Russell Page. The addition would have added only 3,600 square feet for art, with the rest going to such amenities as a new auditorium, office space, classrooms, conservation lab, café, gift shop and boardroom. Museum officials abandoned that plan in June and announced they would come up with another one after running into strong opposition from cultural preservationists emboldened by a successful campaign to prevent the radical renovation and modernization of another beloved cultural institution, the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.

One of the worst expansions since the turn of the millennium was that of the Morgan Library in 2006. In that one, architect Renzo Piano—who also designed the new Whitney—clamped a bright, airy atrium onto the side of the old building. Visitors enter via the atrium, which contains a café, restaurant and gift shop as well as some small exhibition galleries. It’s a pleasant enough space, but it is like the anti-Morgan. Passing from it into what should be the main attraction of the visit makes the ornate, wood-paneled and book-lined inner sanctums of financier J.P. Morgan feel like a trip down to the basement.

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enlarge | The new Whitney includes terraces for outdoor art. Photo © by Nic Lehoux/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum
Want vs. Need
Why are museums so mad to expand?

It has less to do with need than with money and prestige. A museum gets only a small percentage of its revenue from admission. More important is the cultivation of big donors and the ability to attract wealthy, philanthropic people to the board. To compete in this arena, museums need to seem like exciting institutions that are growing and doing new things. Never mind that most museums are committed to the appreciation and preservation of the past. There must be growth. And trustees want something back for their multimillion-dollar contributions. They want to be remembered for something made of bricks and mortar. They want their names on things.

This leads to all kinds of adventurism. If they’re not expanding the mother ship, museums are trying to extend their “brand.” The Guggenheim tried to create an international empire of satellite museums— or McGuggenheims, as they were mockingly called. With the exception of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, little of this has come to pass.

Are there any good museum expansions?

It’s hard to find fault with all the wings the Metropolitan Museum has put up over the past 30 years. It is, after all, an encyclopedic museum devoted to displaying the art of countless cultures over 5,000 years. You need space to do that job. In the Met’s case, bigger really is better.

But there are other cases, where smaller, more modest institutions have carried out expansions that really do make them better. Two examples come to mind, both in New Jersey. The Newark Museum, for example, waited 30 years to carry out a plan that had been derailed decades earlier by civil unrest. Princeton architect Michael Graves, whose own home is featured beginning on page 74 of this issue and who died a few months ago, was a young, unknown architect in 1968 when museum director Sam Miller tapped him for the project. But it wasn’t until 1989 that it was brought to fruition.

The Newark Museum had a great collection, particularly in the area of American art. But its 1920 building was too small and too dowdy to show it off to the best advantage. Graves tied the museum together with two adjacent buildings and coaxed out of them an orderly sequence of spaces. He borrowed a theme from the original building’s best-known feature, a skylit central court, adding similar skylit rotundas at key locations throughout as a unifying device. He followed soaring spaces with contained ones and made sure the contained spaces had a vista—a passage drawing the visitor to the next space, a progression he referred to as “the yellow brick road.”

All this was done on a modest budget. Graves was able to evoke a sense of solid, neo-classical construction with lots of niches, columns, recesses and patterned floors, but he accomplished it all with inexpensive drywall and vinyl tile. The effect is never too busy. In fact, the redesigned museum is nothing if not serene. Spaces were designed around key works of art or collections, such as the museum’s famed Tibetan Collection, for which the architect fashioned an abstraction of Far Eastern architecture with square columns, curlicue arches, and bright red and yellow colors.

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enlarge | The Montclair’s barrel-vaulted Inness Gallery is named for Hudson River Artist George Inness, who moved to Montclair toward the end of his career. Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum
Comparable Reasoned Approach
The renovation carried out by the Montclair Art Museum in 2002 was similarly successful. Montclair owes its existence to the 19th century art colony that grew up around the great Hudson River artist George Inness, who had moved to the town toward the end of his career.

The museum, like Newark’s, is strong in American art and also has a great collection of Native American art. The new galleries are built around these strengths. One of the highlights is an intimate barrel-vaulted gallery devoted to its great collection of 21 Inness paintings. It’s the only such gallery in the world. Among its paintings are a number that treat local motifs, such as Early Autumn, Montclair, with its mood of impending storm.

Both of these fine renovations included such extras as auditoriums, but that is not what makes them so good. Both succeeded in giving the visitor a better experience of their art and, in the process, sharpening and refining both museums’ core identities.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man (Lyons Press, September 2010), about art, landscape and dog walking.