The Explosion of New Museums: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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If you've lived long enough to make it around the block once or twice, then you know that it's possible to have too much of a good thing. For example, I would never complain that there are too many museums in Rome or in Paris. But I would be wary of a phenomenon of a hundred new museums springing up in a short period of time in one country. So you can imagine my disbelief in reading a statistic about new museums in Germany, as published in the last issue of Art in America. In the 1970s there were 1500 museums. By the year 2000 the number of museums in Germany had jumped to 6000. And in the year 2000 alone more than 200 new entries were registered. Not all of them are art museums---but the majority of them are.

With cultural tourism on the rise, and with the cost of traveling getting more and more affordable, it makes sense for ambitious city fathers to embrace the idea that if you built it-meaning, the museums---they will come. Hey, after all, if Bilbao, the provincial Spanish city, virtually unknown until a few years ago, could become an overnight sensation, why wouldn't any other second tier town give it a shot by inviting Frank Gehry and Thomas Krens to build another satellite of the ever-expanding Guggenheim empire in their neck of the woods? At one time, the megalomaniacal Tom Krens was negotiating the building of four satellites of the Guggenheim museum in Brazil alone. Nothing came out of it, but it didn't stop him from trying elsewhere. These days he's waiting for approval to build yet another satellite, this time in Singapore and that's not all. According to the article by David D'Arcy in the Wall Street Journal, the world's newest Guggenheim museum, a $250 million dollar, 50-story glass and steel structure, is planned for Guadalajara, Mexico. At his home base, Mr. Krens failed in his plan to build an extension for his museum in Lower Manhattan, to be designed by Frank Gehry. On top of that, out of two Guggenheim outposts, opened to much fanfare only a few years ago in Las Vegas, one closed down after the first exhibition, while the second is barely limping along. The question is---Is anyone sober enough to stop this McDonald's franchise? I wonder what are our friends in Brazil, Singapore or Mexico are thinking about Tom Kren's plans, which smack of cultural imperialism?

Tomorrow I will have the chance to raise this question with a group of museum directors coming from Mexico for a round table panel discussion with their counterparts---directors of museums here in Los Angeles. My good friend Dr. Selma Holo, has asked me to moderate this panel, organized by the newly created U.S.C. International Museum Institute, of which she's in charge. The institute was conceived as a forum for conversation among museum directors of the Pacific Rim about the future of museums and the changing role of museums in society. I will ask the distinguished panelists about the apparent lack of transparency in how museums conduct business, and their tendency to treat the public in a patronizing father-knows-best way. And who should run our museums: scholars or ambitious business people with a limited knowledge of art, if any? I plan to ask museum directors if they have any plans of abolishing admission fees for public museums, making them public not just in word but in deed. And about the false comfort of blockbuster exhibitions, draining resources from serving their permanent collections. So many questions, so little time...