Service of Bigger is Better

September 11th, 2014

Categories: Architects, Big, Museums

I don’t believe institutions need to occupy more space to be better, and see few benefits apart from the jobs expansion generates.

The private school I attended has hired a company to find it a larger building. It currently inhabits a big and several smaller ones. With so many talented architects and interior designers who know how to squeeze the most out of space, getting something bigger seems like a waste of money. Spending the money on teacher salaries, scholarships and upgraded computer capabilities would be a better plan. My checkbook will remain closed when I receive the anticipated requests to support a bigger and better building.

Then there’s the Frick that’s about to swell and the Delaware Art Museum [photo right] that felt forced to sell artwork to pay for its expansion that, in the end, didn’t positively affect attendance. The latter museum’s administration is being scolded by its peers for selling its treasure, a stopgap measure at best. Deborah Solomonaug covered the intrigue in The New York Times in “Censured Delaware Art Museum Plans to Divest More Works.

Adding to the debate, here are highlights of our recent visit to a bigger–so it must be better–museum.

Guides directed us to a parking lot at the expanded, new and improved Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass. [photos below left and right] which we’ve visited many times before. Formerly we parked outside the main entrance where the admissions booth was. Where we parked last week clearly wasn’t the main lot. As a result, we began a preposterous trek that helped accentuate the ungainly plan of the  new place.

We followed a path to the closest entrance which landed us in museum offices. A helpful administrator jumped up and showed us to a door which led us through a research library. They were expecting company: At the end of the library’s main aisle was a guard stationed to wave us forward and no doubt to watch that we didn’t take a detour through the stacks.

As we left the library he pointed to our next door, which took us outside again. He told us to be sure to admire the new water pools—where the original parking lot was. He mentioned the number of doors we should bypass to get to the cashier. Off we went on another stroll. I couldn’t help think what such a ramble in and out would be like in bitter heat or cold, rain or snow. The guard said we could take a golf cart back to the parking lot. I saw one wandering around the property carrying a large family. The kids enjoyed the ride. It didn’t seem efficient.

We entered the correct door but still no admissions desk in sight. Following an arrow we walked down a long hall passing the gift store and finally, to a gracious foyer at the back of which were information and admissions desks. This was the new part of the museum where additional special exhibition spaces are.

However, to visit the main museum, our old friend, off we went again past the gift shop, down the long hall and into another entrance where, that day, you couldn’t buy a ticket.

Critics gave the expansion rave reviews. Evidently the media didn’t zigzag as we did. The addition is attractive yet the architect had a lapse when joining the old with the new.

More to the point: Was the expansion practical or necessary? How many people will be able to avail themselves of exhibits in the expanded space? Williamstown is charming but inaccessible by public transportation, though as we left town, we saw a Peter Pan bus parked outside the local inn.

Do you think that institutions must increase their footprints for survival or in some cases, is such expenditure the first step towards doom? What is really behind such expansion: ego and folly perhaps?

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4 Responses to “Service of Bigger is Better”

  1. Jeremiah Said:

    As a college trustee emeritus, I know that, one, it is always easier to raise money for bricks and mortar because in buildings even the toilet seats can be named after somebody, and two, no not-for-profit administrator is a success unless he or she can change something, preferably something big and lastingly monumental.

    The Clark cunningly explains away its disaster by saying that its new “campus” enables it to return to its true mission of being a center for art research and scholarship instead of an interesting small regional art gallery. Maybe, but it smacks to me of a “the public be damned” attitude.

    Another recent example of this sad trend in museum corruption is the Morgan Library in New York City. It used to be a charming smaller gallery that unfailingly exhibited beautiful and interesting things and then spent the equivalent of its entire endowment on a grandiose renovation and expansion. Now it has become an attractive place to have lunch with a big store and a couple of show rooms attached.

    “He who funds runs.” I fear we are only at the beginning of museums as repositories of art eventually becoming irrelevant. Too bad.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think you’ve hit it on the head about wanting something monumental happen on an administrator’s watch.

    As for raising funds for bricks and mortar, while it makes sense, it didn’t work for The Delaware Art Museum or maybe they didn’t try to raise money. Very sad. Boards of Directors should not permit such expansions unless the money is in the bank before a spade hits the earth.

    At least the Morgan is in New York City where there’s a huge population of potential visitors–residents and tourists. This can’t be said of the Clark or Delaware museums. And because of the constraints of space in the city, it couldn’t suffer from the sprawl that happened with the Clark.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    One can’t expect to squeeze a growing attendance into the same space, especially a school which houses active children. Should a school demonstrate that its growth and/or expanded activities warrant larger facilities, then it has good reason to expect its alumni to help out, and in most cases, they will.

    It may be the same with museums, though anticipated population/membership isn’t so predictable.

    The concept of “bigger is better” is a matter of opinion and has no relation to need. In some cases bigger is better, and in others it’s not. The debate is endless, and threatens to be boring after a while.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The school in question is and wants to be small–that’s one of its benefits to students. I’ve been told by a trustee that the student body is not suffering where they are. They are looking to the future…whatever that means.

    I think those who want to grow this school by making the building bigger may suffer from what Jeremiah identified–wanting to create a legacy for themselves. Problem is, after a few years, nobody will remember who was what or where when this happened, unless, like ballparks, the school permits Mr. and Mrs. XYZ to place their names on the building.

    Some things that are bigger, such as parks, are often better. It’s always nice to have more room if it’s available or some steak to take home if you can’t eat the big portion at a restaurant. Moderation seems to ring a bell for me in most cases.

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