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God is in the details
July 8, 2012
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VANCOUVER, BC, Jul 8, 2012/ Troy Media/ – In the fizzy first years of the new millennia, the ‘Bilbao effect’ was a hot topic on the cultural cocktail circuit. Richard Florida and bands of culturally creative folk teamed up with other cultural bohemians to promote architectural solutions to declining attendance, the perceived growing irrelevance of authentic as opposed to virtual museum and gallery tours, and the nagging evidence that many major Canadian cultural institutions had a growing annual and cumulative deficit on their books.
Faced with the clear and present reality of declining audiences and aging gallery infrastructure, the quick solution seemed to be ‘doing a Bilbao,’ and city after city in Canada began to contemplate its own version of the miracle of the Basque Country: St. John’s The Rooms, Toronto’s Renaissance ROM and AGO, Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum, Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Edmonton’s 2005 Centennial Royal Alberta Museum, and Calgary’s Glenbow expansion. Only the west coast seemed to be cautiously avoiding the civic rush to move from ‘back of the napkin’ to the construction of the crystal.
Most of the above projects were built, and notably the one in Canada’s wealthiest city, Calgary, failed to achieve lift off. I have an interest in the Glenbow project, because I was the CEO who initiated it with unanimous board support in late 2005. After investing two years of our institutional life in the project, the board pulled out in 2007 for a variety of reasons, chief of which was the likelihood that even an expenditure of $210M and London starchitect Sir Norman Foster couldn’t create sustainable operations for the new and greatly expanded Glenbow.
We admitted to ourselves that public museums and galleries are called non-profits for good reason, and we learned a few other lessons as well. For those who want chapter and verse, I refer you to Robert R. Janes excellent [amazon_link id="0415463009" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Museums in a Troubled World [/amazon_link](Routledge: London and New York, 2009), which contains the Glenbow case study.
For those content with the Coles Notes version, I note the following lessons:
1. define what institutional success looks like before starting the project;
2. select any business partner(s) with great care, based on the previous definition of institutional success;
3. avoid fixating on celebrity buildings as the solution to a problem that is more probably rooted in the institution’s mission, purpose and values; and
4. pay attention to what matters most, namely content and economic sustainability. In a museum, this means collection quality, programming quality and building an operating endowment.
Today, as Vancouver is considering the pros and cons of creating a new Vancouver Art Gallery, I think it would be wise to learn from Glenbow’s example, and ask the above questions about existing operations.
For instance: is the collection uniformly graded with a bias towards first class content? Is the public programming consistently drawing new and inquisitive audiences? Is there an existing or potential deficit problem, in a smaller building with well-established (and therefore understood) operations and maintenance costs? What does the architecture of the endowment fund look like? And finally, is celebrity starchitecture being proposed to deal with any of the above?
If so, now is the time to seriously query architecture and novelty as solutions to institutional sustainability. It is also the time to admit that new architecture creates new operating costs, and that expanded storage and display space often creates the need for new human resources. Most often these will be knowledge workers within a unionized work environment, pursuant to existing and expensive collective agreements.
Signal effort to cost the operating model that is being conceptualized as the solution to any and all problems should be made by museum management before architects begin their work. To be honest, most of us haven’t done this with industrial strength rigour in the past. The architectural plans must also be accompanied by strategic planning, that addresses the core issues of institutional purpose, meaning and value.
The due diligence recommended above is especially important for cultural facilities that are truly non-governmental, because they cannot expect government bailouts to rectify architectural and market error. I note that the Toronto Globe and Mail on April 16, 2010 reported that the businesslike Harper Conservatives gave ‘Canada’s cash-strapped national museums’ a major boost in the form of a one-time cash infusion of $15-million ‘to ease accumulated operating pressures.’
The beneficiaries were the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, which manages its namesake museum, and the Canadian War Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation. ‘Several museum directors expressed great gratitude for the support.’ I can understand their happiness, but note that, over the last decade, all of these institutions were the beneficiaries of big tax-based architectural investments intended to make them more self-sufficient, not less.
As the CEO of three significant Canadian cultural NGOs over the past 25 years, I can attest that such bailouts do not occur in our sector. As the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, ‘God is in the details.’ I think the details relevant to sustaining the business require careful study before it’s time to call the architect.
Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Mike Robinson is a Canadian NGO leader, and brings an environmental and cultural perspective to current affairs. He is a critical thinker and worried optimist.
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