U.S. art museums in midst of building boom

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is getting ready for its close-up.

Heavy brown protective paper covers the floors, and workers from Italy are installing specially designed glass cases that will house contemporary art and African artifacts in the museum's new addition, designed by New York architect Steven Holl.


Come next year, Kansas City's leading art institution will have its moment in the national spotlight as the latest museum to unveil a major expansion, part of a building boom that has swept up museums of all sizes, from New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago to the art museums in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Akron, Ohio.

No single factor accounts for the boom, experts say. Some museums need the space to accommodate larger crowds and add exhibit space so they can show more of their collections or handle traveling "blockbuster" shows. Others want to update their image with eye-popping lobbies, food courts and gift shops, part of an effort to stay competitive with video games, the Internet and multi-screen theaters.


But in the back of most museum officials' minds lurks the undulating, titanium-clad image of the most successful museum project of recent times, Frank Gehry's stunning Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which has attracted 8 million visitors since it opened in 1997, pumping millions of euros into the city's economy.

"Most of them really need the space," said the Nelson-Atkins' director, Marc Wilson. "But the Bilbao effect has certainly made these projects more visible."

In October, the Denver Art Museum opened a new wing, designed by Daniel Libeskind, that drew international attention - and criticism - for its sharply angled walls. Last month, the Phoenix Art Museum opened a $50 million, four-story gallery for 20th-century and contemporary art. This month, the Institute of Contemporary Art will open on Boston's waterfront, the first new art museum in Boston in nearly 100 years.

Among other projects completed this year, the Morgan Library in New York unveiled a new look featuring a glass entrance pavilion that unified three existing buildings, and the Phillips Collection in Washington finished a renovation and addition.

The coming year promises to be as busy, with San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art dedicating a new building in January, and the new Nelson-Atkins building opening in June.

According to a survey by the Association of Art Museum Directors, 86 of its 175 members say they are planning or have begun expansions.

To defray the cost of the Nelson-Atkins' 165,000-square-foot expansion, which will increase the museum's space by 71 percent and provide a soaring new entrance lobby, the museum has raised more than $360 million. That includes money for overhauling the museum's original 1933 building and for upkeep in years to come.

The heart of the project is an 840-foot-long addition, named for Marion and Henry Bloch, the co-founder of the H&R; Block tax service and chairman of the museum's board of trustees. Holl has placed most of his new building underground, which saves energy and preserves the sweeping vista of the original building.


Five skylights supplement artificial lighting in the underground galleries, where the museum's collection of contemporary art will be displayed. Multiple entrances and exits in the galleries will allow visitors to catch glimpses of other rooms and to wander at will, rather than follow a predetermined march through a curator's vision of art history.

The new building is the result of a museumwide reassessment that started in 1993. By then, the neoclassical building was no longer big enough to hold the growing collection, which now numbers nearly 35,000 pieces.

"It was clear the Nelson-Atkins had reached a plateau," Wilson said. "We'd run out of room for just about everything."

Because of the long lead times involved in planning and building a major addition, many of the projects now opening were initiated in the mid-1990s, when a rising stock market fueled confidence in the future and generated the profits for wealthy patrons to make multimillion-dollar donations.

That also was when museums were pushing up against the limits of their existing buildings as they sought to make room for new amenities.

"Museums have become more engaging of the public," said James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, where a new 260,000-square-foot wing for modern and contemporary art will open in 2009. "It does come at a cost, and it becomes a cycle in which more activity produces more costs. The museum seeks more support, generates more attendance, needs more space and so on."


And then came Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The success of that design made a previously woebegone city in northern Spain an international tourist destination. Suddenly, museum projects became important not just to museum officials but to local politicians and civic leaders.

"It's an expression of civic pride and the competition among cities," Cuno said. Referring to architect Renzo Piano's design for the new Art Institute building, he added, "To sustain the position of the city, its position in the world, it's important to have this kind of high-quality symbolic gesture."

But Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist, says the Bilbao effect could wear off.

"There's certainly an issue here about overbuilding and being duplicative instead of being creative," Zimbalist said.

Stevenson Swanson writes for the Chicago Tribune.