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We Built Way Too Many Cultural Institutions During the Good Years

We Built Way Too Many Cultural Institutions During the Good Years
Timothy Hursley/Taubman Museum of Art

"Demand" is an inherently tricky concept to measure when it comes to the arts. How can a museum know, for instance, that a million new visitors will surely come through if it opens a new gallery? Or how can a theater accurately gauge that its community has the capacity to support a new stage, if it can just find the money to build one? There is no neat way to count a city’s untapped demand for museums, cultural centers and performing arts spaces.

That being said, it's becoming pretty clear that during the boom years, American cities built too many of them, surpassing demand with a supply that would come to weigh down arts institutions that had no business chasing after their own Guggenheim Bilbao. A massive new study by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago reaches this conclusion after surveying 725 new arts facilities and expansions that sprang up in American cities between 1994 and 2008, at a collective cost of more than $15 billion.

Here are a pair of maps from the final report of the metropolitan statistical areas with cultural projects under way in 1994 (at left) and with projects begun between 1994 and 2008.

Every corner of the country was in on the craze, as were communities of all sizes. Per capita, the biggest total spenders on cultural projects during this period were Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont region of California, Appleton and Madison, Wisconsin, and Lawrence, Kansas. (The biggest total spender, not surprisingly, was the New York region, coming in at more than $1.5 billion.)

"If demand is difficult to measure in the first place, then what’s the justification for the supply?" asks Joanna Woronkowicz, one of the report’s co-authors and an associate with the Cultural Policy Center. Repeatedly, the researchers came across arts organizations that failed to thoughtfully assess this question. We know in retrospect that the demand often wasn't there: In overbuilding for audiences that did not come, many of these organizations have since run into financial trouble.

So why the building glut? The researchers point first to some demographic trends. The communities that tended to invest in these new arts facilities were often those experiencing population growth with rising rates of education. We also saw during this period a building boom in multiple sectors (although it’s particularly noteworthy that building in the arts grew faster than or on par with building in the health and education sectors).

"We’d just finished this huge period of economic growth, and a lot of institutions were under the guise that they were doing very, very well," Woronkowicz says. "What we concluded is that there’s a lot of short-term thinking going on. A lot of institutions felt very successful, however they weren’t really thinking down the line."

She also points to one other factor: Cities' own Richard Florida’s books, such as The Rise of the Creative Class. This theme recurred throughout the center’s surveys and interviews: "This Florida hypothesis was a belief that was taking hold in a lot of cities," Woronkowicz says, "that if we have cultural amenities, we’ll have better, more creative populations."

The biggest arts building boom in fact occurred in the South, a potential sign of cities there trying to catch up with the rest of the country. Often, these institutions made the assumption – "if you build it, they will come," Woronkowicz says – that revenue and bigger crowds would necessarily result from the new buildings. "We saw that everywhere," she says.

"These projects are very much emotional, they’re projects that have a lot of passion in them," Woronkowicz says. "A lot of the rationality that goes into running a business sometimes doesn’t go into these projects."

Arts institutions are also particularly susceptible to the idea that the building itself should be a piece of art (one case study from the research tells the story of a museum in Roanake, Virginia, whose humble plans were sidetracked by the dream of a Bilbao-like architectural landmark). Within this community, Woronkowicz adds, there is often the perception that a successful arts organization must have its own building.

Those organizations that genuinely did need new space (and kept to their budgets, with consistent leadership and community input) tended to fare the best. As for the others that got into trouble, the researchers document a formula. The operating expenses of the new facilities wound up being higher than anyone anticipated. The revenues turned out to be lower. Then to bridge that gap, institutions began to cut programs, then their hours of operation, and sometimes even days of the week, and eventually their staff.

The recession surely played a role in this process. Plenty of arts centers and museums that were planned in good times later opened their doors to an approaching recession. But the lesson here, Woronkowicz says, is not that all these institutions suffered from poor economic timing beyond their control.

The authors of the report are all self-described arts lovers themselves, and so they’re not out to discourage cultural institutions from ever building anything new again. But Woronkowicz says these findings may suggest organizations over-invested in bricks and mortar when they might have been wiser to spend on programming. The report also suggests we may need to change the way we think about what it means to have a "healthy" arts sector.

"This has been coming up in a lot of discussions about ‘what is health?’ Is health growth? Or is health quantity?" Woronkowicz asks. "And that doesn’t seem to be the case for the cultural sector. We’ve seen a big expansion in the cultural sector in terms of organizations and facilities. Is that necessarily healthy? I don’t think so."

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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