museum architecture competes with exhibitions to harness power


Only a quarter of a century ago, Australian art museums were widely regarded as majestic corporations authoritatively disseminating high culture knowledge to respectful enthusiasts.

This has been reflected in the architecture of museums: think large flights of steps, columns and porticoes giving way to atriums and expansive foyers, often leading to a spare white cube interior.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is Frank Gehry’s architectural wonder in titanium, stone and glass.

But the face of the museum has undergone a major overhaul in recent decades.

With costs escalating and funding scarce than ever before, art museums are realizing that an interesting building can attract a crowd as well as any blockbuster exhibition.

Witness the rise of spectacular architecture in art museums, often by distinguished architects. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain was a game-changer in this regard, created by Canadian-American architecture superstar Frank Gehry and Thomas Krens, then director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, who worked with the Basque government on the project. .

Although built 16 years ago, opinion is still divided over the appropriateness of the shimmering and dynamic curves of its titanium exterior, sweeping atrium and large-scale interior spaces.

Attracting crowds: A mural by artist Reko Rennie titled ‘Trust the Two Percent’ is pictured at the entrance to the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Brisbane.
Image AAP / Dan Peled

Whatever one’s opinion, Gehry’s radical overhaul of art museum architecture provided an instant and iconic catalyst for investment and development of museums worldwide.

Museum administrators, city planners, and governments quickly saw the potential for unique building design – in addition to indoor exhibits – to attract crowds, fuel cultural tourism, and revitalize local economies.

In Australia, two recent and outstanding examples of the remarkable success of this approach to museum performance are the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania and the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Brisbane.

In the case of MONA, the originality of the programming, coupled with a sense of civic pride and celebration of architectural space, have helped make Hobart the key destination for Tasmania – if not Australia – for the ‘contemporary art.

Likewise, GoMA has built an extraordinary reputation for reaching out to the region and reconfiguring Australia’s relationships with others and with itself, particularly through its exhibits on Aboriginal art and accomplishment. substantial part of the Asia-Pacific Triennale.

The Brisbane Modern Art Gallery, which won the RAIA National Prize for Public Architecture in the 2007 National Architecture Awards.
Image AAP / Royal Australian Institute of Architects

There does not seem to be a slowdown in the production chain of the new glamorous contemporary art museums, from the Beijing National Art Museum of China (designed by Frenchman Jean Nouvel) to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, designed by Frank Gehry .

Plans for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

New museums, often of gigantic proportions, are being developed to meet the future needs of an international audience with international expectations.

The recently announced strategic vision and master plan of the Art Gallery of NSW, titled Sydney Modern, which promises to expand and radically transform exhibition spaces and digital technology to better engage the physical and virtual audiences of the 21st century, joins the queue of massive museum redevelopments in the planning.

Regional centers (such as Beijing) are getting richer, but may still lack important and emblematic art collections such as those in New York, London or Paris.

These regional and ambitious cities, with flourishing economies and transnational populations, focus on the contemporary as a means of establishing their cultural references in good faith and consolidating their economic future.

An interesting and unique art museum design emerges as a way for local economies to do just that: provide an additional business card for tourists who are looking for more than just another good exhibit.

These themes and many more will be discussed at a symposium titled Inside Out: The Dynamics of New Museum Architecture on Display, which will take place November 19-20 at COFA, Paddington, Sydney.


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