Is Museum Franchising the Future?
Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper reported this morning that London mayor and shag haircut endurance champ Boris Johnson is attempting to woo the Guggenheim Foundation into opening a new international outpost on the grounds of one of his city’s former Olympic sites. The move is reportedly Johnson’s first step toward generating “a major new cultural quarter in East London.” And Johnson couldn’t have asked for a more primed and ready institutional dance partner in the art world.
Bailey notes in the piece that the Guggenheim is the first museum to actively franchise itself around the globe. The Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is slated to debut in 2017; and the fate of a possible Helsinki franchise is in the rugged hands of the Finns as we speak. Various other Guggenheim partnerships have lived and died in the interim: an exhibition space and a Hermitage-affiliated museum, both in Las Vegas (2001-2003 and 2001-2008, respectively), and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin (1997-2013). Other projects were proposed but failed to materialize. Rio, Guadalajara, Taiwan, and Lithuania were all options. In this context, a London expansion would hardly be revolutionary.
However, the Guggenheim is no longer alone in its franchising strategy. It isn’t even alone in Abu Dhabi. The Louvre is also in the midst of constructing a new site in the Saadiyat Cultural District, the same luxurious island strip off the Emirates’ capital city where the Abu Dhabi branch of the Guggenheim will stand. Those two buildings will be joined by the Zayed National Museum and the Performing Arts Centre, a characteristically alien embryo-like concert hall by starchitect Zaha Hadid.
My question is this: When do other mega-institutions join the race to franchise? Ideally, museums exist to serve as altruistic stewards of culture; it’s the entire reason that they’re designated as non-profit entities. However, the past decade or so of exhibition and event programming has demonstrated a noticeable shift away from the mission of strict artistic enlightenment. To my eye, some celebrated museums - at least, here in the US - have been acting more and more like tourist attractions, entertainment complexes, and celebrity bait. Look at last year’s much-publicized Punk: From Chaos to Coutureexhibition at The Met, or LACMA’s Stanley Kubrick retrospective, or practically anything chef'ed up by Jeffrey Deitch’s MOCA (Art in the Streets, Rebel, take your pick. I sometimes got the feeling that if his planned Disco exhibition had gone forward that the city’s art literati might have wreaked more havoc on DTLA than the Rodney King riots.)
Were any of the above without creative merit? No. But they do reflect a conscious effort within major institutions to court a wider audience and new revenue streams from a slightly different breed of donor than they’ve traditionally accessed. Being not-for-profit does not mean being passive about funding. Most if not all museums are on an eternal quest to enlarge their endowments - even those with the purest intentions. After all, better fundraising should lead to more flexibility, better programming, and an improved experience for visitors.
Yet people closely monitoring the situation, like Eric Gibson at The Wall Street Journal, have noticed that “art for art’s sake” and commitment to the public good may both be at an all-time low tide in museum boards around the world. Tyler Green of Blouin Art Info even compared the board of the soon-to-be-deceased Corcoran Gallery of Art to the board of Enron. The takeaway is clear: Because of an influx of new leadership more ready to view art as an asset and the museum as a business, cultural institutions react to a different set of incentives than they used to. So with foreign billionaires and international travel capitals looking as eager to offer fat licensing fees to museums as old time gangsters were to sling Thanksgiving turkeys around their home neighborhoods, I think there’s reason to believe that the Guggenheim’s and Louvre’s franchise moves may only be the beginning of a larger trend.