Monday musings are my way of sharing “brain blorts”: brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important. Here is the prototypical way to launch a new museum:
Raise a ton of money
Commission an architect to build a posh building (sometime this comes before step 1)
Open to the public
See if it works
Often people are surprised and disappointed when the attendance projections fall short. (Though the not-so-secret sauce in museum planning is that the attendance projections are often jiggered to make the project budget balance. So, not really a surprise when they are off, eh?)
In an era when the buzz phrase in museums is “design thinking,” when we enthuse about rapid prototyping and iterative development, this model of “build it and they will come” is anachronistic. And indeed, it may have been so for several decades. The University of Chicago’s excellent 2007 report Set In Stone documented the deficiencies of this approach during the 1994-2008 cultural building boom. Not only did 80% of the projects run over budget (some by as much as 200%) but many of them resulted in buildings more expensive than the organization could afford to maintain. And, the authors noted, “because it could take up to ten years to plan and complete a project, the actual needs of the communities served by the project could end up being very different from those originally envisioned.”
So what’s the alternative? For today’s musing I want to point out two recent articles that suggest other approaches to planning and building a museum:
Last week the NYT previewed the Museum of Food and Drink*’s first exhibit in a new space in Brooklyn. MOFAD has its origins in 2005, when founder Dave Arnold set up a small exhibit at a food exposition. In the last ten years, a small core staff, led by director Peter Kim, explored potential sites and built audience via a Kickstarter funded mobile exhibit (centered on an awe-inspiring 3,200 lb cannon used to create puffed cereals) and a series of provocative public debates exploring current issues about food production, policies, values and health. Even this first long-term space is positioned as a “lab”–a site to experiment as the museum finds its footing and slowly scales up.
The second article also springs from the world of food. Last week the Washington Post reviewed Prequel, a “permanent pop-up space” that will host a rotating cast of food-related business looking to test the market and attract funding. Prequel is kind of a bricks-and-mortar version of Kickstarter: a way to gauge interest in a concept, and attract backers who may give cash now, as well as becoming dedicated fans and customers when you open. In cities groaning under the collective weight of nonprofits asking for private and philanthropic support, maybe a similar approach for museums could work. An enterprising individual (or collective) could convert a warehouse to flexible exhibit space, and invite startup nonprofits to take their turn piloting their concept and pitching to funders. What do you think? If you were (or are) planning a new museum, what is the most promising 21c approach to design/build your new organization?
*For the record, I am on the advisory board of MOFAD, but this encomium isn’t tooting my own horn because Dave, Peter et al came up with this strategy based on their own collective brilliance.