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Cultural ‘Building Boom’ Offers Lessons for Arts Groups, Report Finds

by Philanthropy News Digest

Cultural institutions embarking on a major building project are more likely to succeed if the project is driven by the organization’s mission and a clear and definable need, a new report from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago finds.

Sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Mellon, Kresge, and MacArthur foundations, the report, Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities, 1994-2008 (73 pages, PDF) examined the building boom for museums, performing arts centers, and theater in the U.S. from 1994 to 2008 and found that while in some cases the projects helped to boost attendance as well as earned and donated income, for the most part they were more difficult and challenging to complete than predicted and put enormous strain on the institutions that commissioned them. The report was based on interviews with more than five hundred organizations and was conducted at the request of both cultural leaders and major foundations that had, in many cases, provided support for the projects, which ranged in cost from $4 million to $335 million.

According to the report, the South saw the greatest increase in the contruction of cultural facilities over the fourteen-year period, while the metropolitan New York area led the country in spending on arts-related projects ($1.6 billion), followed by Los Angeles ($950 million) and Chicago ($870 million). The report also found that increases in the number of cultural facilities were most common in communities in which residents’ personal income and education level also rose; that performing arts centers were the most common type of arts facility built during the period; and that more than 80 percent of the more than seven hundred building projects examined ran over budget, some by as much as 200 percent.

The report’s authors recommend that, before embarking on a major building project, leaders of cultural institution take time to understand the precise reasons for launching a project, determine whether the facility is actually needed, and assess whether there is adequate support in the community for its construction and, looking down the road, the kinds of events it plans to host.

That clearly was not done in the case of the New York City-based American Folk Art Museum, which was forced to vacate its new building after experiencing post-recession revenue and attendance declines. “The Folk Art Museum should not have happened,” Carroll Joynes, co-founder and senior of the Cultural Policy Center and co-author of the study, told the New York Times. “It was a wonderful museum, and they self-destructed. Our whole purpose in this is to say, ‘There are ways to do this that can protect your organization and help you fulfill your mission that won’t cripple you or take you down.’”

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