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Editorial> Setting the Stones Right
William Menking examines "Set in Stone," a study on new arts facilities.
Chinese architect Pei-Zhu's OCT Design Museum in Shenzhen, China.
Courtesy Studio Pei-Zhu

If you build it they will come! Well not necessarily if you are talking about new arts facilities, claims “Set In Stone,” a just released study from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago.

It won't be good news for architects to learn that many new cultural buildings built on the assumption that they would benefit their institutions, in fact, “put enormous strain” on them. More disturbing still, the report claims that some institutions stumbled when they became “signature pieces for leading architects.” The study makes important recommendations for civic leaders, arts organizations, donors and government officials contemplating new cultural buildings.

First, it recommends that clients focus on their organization’s mission and the public’s “demand for the project.” Before formulating final plans, leaders and donors need to understand the precise reasons for the project, as well as determine need, attendance and long-term financial support. Successful projects were driven by both the organization’s artistic mission and also by clear and definable needs. The report recommends that leadership be clear and consistent throughout the process and that a single project manager be appointed to monitor the project through to completion. Finally, they suggest the need for flexibility—both in terms of how to generate income but also in light of the fact that cultural projects can take as long as ten to 20 years to complete. It’s a cold, hard reality that the community served by the building may be different than the one that originally envisioned the building.

According to “Set in Stone,” projects usually faltered when they became signature set pieces for the aspirations of donors or local community leaders. Initial cost projections for these projects were frequently both extremely and unreasonably low, making the final tab much more expensive than anticipated. More than 80 percent of the projects studied ran over budget, some by as much as 200 percent.

The study also found that cities in the South had the greatest increase in cultural building in part because it had lagged behind the rest of the country for many years. But more to the point, “increases” in cultural facilities were most common in communities that had also had increases in personal income and in education among their residents. Finally during the study period (1994-2008), New York led the country in cultural building spending $1.6 billion, while the Los Angeles area witnessed an expansion of $950 million and the Chicago area saw spending of $870 million on arts related projects.

In October, I traveled to Shenzhen, China to the opening of the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. The curator of this fascinating exhibition, Terence Riley, took the assembled journalists on a tour of Shenzhen which 20 years ago had a population of 35,000, but now has over 10 million. Riley pointed out the new Arata Isozaki-designed concert hall, a contemporary art museum by Coop Himmelb(l)au, and a design museum by Chinese architect Pei-Zhu. None of these new cultural facilitates had any collections or work on their walls. The design museum was being used to film a car commercial.

In China, it did not seem to matter whether or not the facilities had anything in them, only that Shenzhen had a cultural district with museums designed by famous architects. In the U.S., our cultural institutions have to work harder. Of course, with the still slow economy, the number of cultural projects in this country has already decreased. Going forward, it hardly needs a massive study to understand that institutions need to plan and develop only those projects the public really wants, demands, and needs.

William Menking