During the last two decades, arts organizations overbuilt and overspent on cultural facilities, apparently sold on the idea that “if you build it, they will come.”
The reviews are in, however, and they cast serious doubt on the validity of such optimistic thinking, a provocative new study from the University of Chicago suggests.
“Set in Stone,” from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, examines a major building boom of museums, performing-arts centers and theaters in the U.S. from 1994 to 2008, and details some hard lessons that can be learned from such expansive building programs.
The study is billed as the first scientifically prepared examination of its kind, and was requested both by cultural leaders and major foundations that had, in many cases, provided support for these building projects, the Cultural Policy Center said.
The research was based on interviews with people in more than 500 organizations and drew data from more than 700 building projects, including new facilities and major renovations. The costs of the projects ranged from $4 million to $335 million.
The Cultural Policy Center also said it relied on “rare, behind-the-scenes access to the discussions surrounding the buildings.”
Unexpected Challenges Amid Building Boom
The building boom in cultural facilities from 1994-2008 outpaced building in other sectors such as healthcare, said Joanna Woronkowicz, an associate at the Cultural Policy Center and one of the authors of the report.
“Expansive new venues, signature architectural statements, vital new centers of artistic and cultural activity, and objects of civic pride—all these could appear to be positive indicators,” said Carroll Joynes, co-founder and senior fellow at the Cultural Policy Center.
Joynes joined Woronkowicz as an author of the report, along with policy center colleagues Norman Bradburn, Robert Gertner, Peter Frumkin, Anastasia Kolendo, and Bruce Seaman.
“At least in the beginning, each of these projects was based on the assumption that a new facility would help increase audience size, increase earned and donated income, and at least indirectly help realize the institution’s mission,” Joynes said.
For many of those organizations, however, a bigger audience and more money was not the reality that played out. In many instances, the experiences in these new and expanded facilities were much more difficult and challenging than predicted, and put enormous strain on institutions, Joynes said.
“It’s not an automatic, ‘you build it, and they will come,’” he said.
In some cases, building projects suffered because they were not in sync with the mission of the organization, or were built more because of the individual aspirations of donors or local community leaders than because of an actual need for a facility.
In addition, the researchers found that some projects stumbled when they became signature pieces for leading architects who ended up designing a significantly more expensive building than the organization could afford to build or maintain.
Also contributing to the challenges were initial cost projections that were “frequently extremely (and unrealistically) low, making the final tab much more expensive than originally forecast,” the study said.
The study found that more than 80% of the projects studied ran over budget, some by as much as 200%.
Project timelines also impacted the struggling projects—it could take up to 10 years to plan and complete a project— and by the time of realization, the actual needs of the communities served by the project could end up being very different from those originally envisioned, the study said.
As a result of these miscalculations—sometimes very substantial—some cultural/arts facilities ended up being forced to reduce access, rethink performance and exhibition schedules, and lay off staff in order to meet their budgeting targets, the study said.
Other Key Findings
The study also looked at great variations in cultural building projects in the U.S. The center’s key findings appear below.
• Cities in the South had the greatest increase in cultural buildings. The region had lagged behind the rest of the country prior to the building boom—the Northeast and West had twice the number of cultural facilities per capita in 1990 than did the South.
• Increases in building were most common in communities with increases in personal income and in education among their residents; this was another reason why the South led in building expansions.
• The New York area led the country in cultural building ($1.6 billion), while the Los Angeles area’s $950 million worth of building ranked second and the Chicago area followed with spending of $870 million on arts-related projects.
• Smaller cities with fewer than 500,000 people were building as well, and many of these cities were building for the first time. On a per-capita basis, nine of the top 10 spenders on cultural projects were in smaller cities. Pittsfield, Mass., for example, with a population of 44,700, led the list with a per-capita expenditure of $605 for six projects at a total cost of more than $81 million.
• More performing-arts centers were built than any other kind of arts facility.
Recommendations for Future Expansion
Interviews with leaders of the projects and data gathered from public sources about the expansions helped the study’s authors assemble advice for people contemplating projects that will comprise the next generation of expansion.
Many of those interviewed said they may have made different recommendations had they had the chance to understand fully the scope and cost of the project from the beginning, the study said.
Before formulating a final plan, institutional leaders and donors need to take time to adequately understand the precise reasons for launching a major building project, determine if there is actual need, and gauge whether there is adequate support in the community both for attendance and for financial support, the study said.
Skeptics need an opportunity to voice their concerns as part of this process—and often this seems to be discouraged, Joynes said.
Woronkowicz added that the most successful projects were driven by the organization’s artistic mission and a clear and definable need.
“We also found that projects were successful when leadership was clear and consistent throughout the process. It helped enormously when there was one project manager, answerable to the board, in charge of the details and accountable for progress,” she added.
Success also depends upon the flexibility of the organization in generating income after project completion, and on how effective the organization was in controlling expenses as the building took place, she said.
The complete study, videos, case studies, other recommendations, and other information is available on the Cultural Policy Center’s resource website.
In addition to the web-based resources, the research team will be speaking at gatherings of leading cultural institutions to provide insights from the study and will release two books in 2013.
The study was supported by grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
“Set in Stone” was released on June 28 by the Cultural Policy Center, a joint project of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.