Two years ago we noted the sad story of the American Folk Art Museum, a building rich with controversy (Capital Punishment, August 20, 2011). Now its about to be torn downby the Museum of Modern Art, no less.
The museum building was highly praised by the architecture critic of the New York Times when it opened (Fireside Intimacy for Folk Art Museum), challenged by others as an example of the museum-building-as-work-of-art focused more on itself than on its ability to showcase the artwork intended to fill it (a depressingly long list). These are tensions inherent in the museum as a building type.
Some museums make do with a re-used factory building or an unassuming building as a simple container, but more often the cultural aspiration of the governing board encompasses the quality of the architectural environment as well as the art collections. Managing the tension in expectations for a musuem building requires an extraordinary amount of wisdom and knowledge on the part of the client, extensive preparation, and very careful selection and oversight of the architect. For more on that see CI #13: Before You Hire an Architect.
But the more fundamental issue in this story is the breach of fiduciary responsibility by the governing board of the American Folk Art Museum. As described in the New York Times, spending $32 million on a building that had to be sold ten years later and was scheduled for demolition two years after that suggests that not enough thought was invested in the fundamentals of stewardship at the outset.
We have seen nonprofit institutions that have been far too conservative in assuming modest risk and debt, thereby missing an opportunity to build a facility that would do great things for the furtherance of their mission. But we have not seen many go so spectacularly in the other direction.