Pardon Our Dust

The art museum is history for the rest of the decade. This is not a good thing.

Art museum
But is it art? Earthmovers and mud are now the museum's top attractions. - Walter  Novak
But is it art? Earthmovers and mud are now the museum's top attractions.
When a fabulous new construction project is christened, the fabulous people pull out all the stops. So it went that October morning at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Just past the barricades that hem the grounds like a prison yard, beside the calm of Wade Lagoon, they gathered to celebrate the museum's expansion.

The mayor was there. So was Plain Dealer Publisher Alex Machaskee. Consulting director Katharine Lee Reid flew in from her new home in North Carolina on the private jet of architect Rafael Viñoly.

It was an all-star groundbreaking, but there was no four-handled bronze shovel to share, no spade plunged into the ground. For one thing, 20-ton earthmovers had already been turning soil for weeks; for another, this is an art museum, not a HUD complex.

But if the tone of the day was engineered to be joyous, you also couldn't be blamed for a tinge of sorrow. This was the day Cleveland's art museum was laid to rest, the last rites before the bulldozers took over.

"We're going to have to make some sacrifices," board President James Bartlett conceded in his opening remarks. "But in the process of what will seem like a long night ahead, we will be creating one of the finest museums in the world." Cue smattering of applause.

Cleveland's place among the world's finest museums has never been in question. How it will emerge from the long night ahead, however, remains a percolating debate. The expansion, lauded by the fabulous people as routinely as night turns to day, wields a price tag of at least $258 million and effectively erases the city's brightest cultural jewel from the map for the rest of the decade.

Officials point to the sliver of time the place will actually be closed: six months, from January till July this year. But already it sat bereft of art for six months prior to closing. Construction won't wrap up until at least 2010, and phased reopenings in the interim will yield only minimal access to the museum's vaunted collection. That means Junior won't see the Armor Court for two years, and Andy Warhol's "Marilyn x 100" equals zero until 2009. The museum's 415,000 annual visitors have been displaced.

Even more alarming: After 10 years of planning and 4 years of fund-raising, the museum still offers no clear answers as to how it will foot the bill.

If you don't count the killer sales at the gift shop, the museum's top attraction in the past year was the 10-by-10-foot model of the future museum that rested in the lobby. Amid its tangle of balsa wood, the existing building is recognizable only by its bookend entrances: the postcard-perfect neoclassical facade that looms over Wade Lagoon and the more dated and blocky 1971 entrance to the north. In between will be a phalanx of wings and corridors intended to improve navigability. Gallery space will increase by 40 percent. And at the center will sit an enormous piazza, architect Viñoly's roofed reinterpretation of the museum's outdoor garden court.

Ambitious though it is, Viñoly's design is actually a scaled-back version of the original, which called for even more gallery space and an underground parking garage. "If you ask the employees if they like the plan, 9 out of 10 of them will say, 'No, it's ugly,'" says one museum staffer, who asked not to be named.

No one disputes that it's costly, however. Virtually every museum in the country is planning, launching, or celebrating an expansion or renovation, but few rival Cleveland's sticker price. Fewer still seem so uncertain of their payment plan.

Though work is under way, the entire cost of the package has yet to be revealed, let alone funded. Since 2002, $127.5 million has been raised, all of it from deep-pocketed trustees, corporations, local foundations, and state and federal sources. The big-money players have already been shaken down, yet the museum is only halfway to covering its tab.

"Let's not speculate," says spokeswoman Donna Brock when asked where the remaining money will come from. "We are very optimistic about the course of this campaign. No one can speculate on where we will be two years from now." (New director Timothy Rub did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

Sources outside the museum, however, are free to speculate.

As a general rule, two-thirds of that tab should be in place by the time of groundbreaking, says Jason Edward Kaufman, chief U.S. correspondent for The Art Newspaper. "They want to look like their ship is in shape, because no one wants to put their money into a leaky vessel."

The Akron Art Museum is midway through an expansion that will triple its original size. When ground was broken in June 2004, three-fourths of the $38 million tab had already been raised. When the Detroit Institute of Arts started its $91 million overhaul in 2001, it was already sitting on $100 million to pay for it.

Even if Rub finds another $130 million or so, that accounts only for the estimated cost of basic construction. And one needn't sport a hard hat to know that "estimated" costs represent merely a fanciful starting point. Browns Stadium's $220 million design ended up costing $290 million by the time of the first kickoff.

Perhaps more problematic: As construction commenced, museum trustees had yet to nail down estimates for future operating costs, which are almost certain to increase dramatically; tacking on 40 percent more gallery space, after all, doesn't come without a spike in the gas bill. When Akron's museum reopens in 2007, for example, operating costs are expected to double. Detroit's museum anticipated little increase in operating costs, but chased down an additional $40 million for such expenses anyway.

"They're gonna go through the exact same thing that we went through, the same thing the Rock Hall and the Science Center went through -- when you open, trying to figure out how to operate the place," says Brian Holley, director of the Cleveland Botanical Garden, which opened a $45 million expansion in 2003. He ended up cutting 15 jobs and running a deficit.

The art museum is guarded in discussing how much such details will run, though construction-related cutbacks have already decimated the staff. But CMA officials prefer to weigh only the best-case scenarios. Selling off art and instituting admission fees are options, though the museum is dead set against both. (One of Rub's great triumphs in Cincinnati, in fact, was to have fees repealed.) Officials insist that the $708 million endowment -- among the fattest in the country -- will not be touched.

"Let me be very clear," Brock says assuredly, as though it were a point of pride: "We have not announced a goal."

What good is the world's finest Degas collection if you can't make a good cappuccino? Museums across the country are realizing that, in order to stay relevant, they must upgrade with more public space and amenities; art for art's sake just doesn't cut it anymore.

In this way, Cleveland is no different from dozens of other museums in the throes of expansion, whose ranks include a veritable art-world all-star team. And all of them have wrestled with the decision whether to remain open during their construction. As the Detroit Institute of Arts neared its groundbreaking in 2001, chunks of granite were falling from the ceiling. Despite the projectiles, the museum never closed to the public.

"For us, it was vital to stay open," says Director Graham W.J. Beal. "For where we're situated in downtown Detroit, for us to have been closed for a number of years would have had an extremely deleterious effect." Give your audience reason to forget you exist, and don't be surprised if they do.

After 10 years of drawing-board revisions, Cleveland's $258 million plan was unanimously approved by the board of trustees last March. Only later was it revealed that, in order to proceed with construction at that everyday low price, the place would have to shut down.

"If it's part of a well-considered plan, then there's nothing wrong with closing the museum for a short period, if it's necessary to complete a project," says The Art Newspaper's Kaufman. "But the fact that it emerged midstream indicates poor planning on the part of the board, and that does not inspire confidence."

Losing audience is a concern not only to the art museum -- which earns grant money in part based on attendance -- but to its University Circle neighbors, for whom CMA is the magnet.

"It's going to be really interesting," says the Botanical Garden's Holley, who knows that fewer visitors could cast a deadly frost over the rest of the circle. "It could work out one of two ways: We could benefit from them being closed, because there's one less attraction. But a lot of people do come to the art museum, then come to the Botanical Garden or the Historical Society as another part of the trip. So the jury's still out."

Cleveland's late decision to close forced it to break plans to host two major exhibitions: an Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy retrospective, whose exclusive engagements were to include Cleveland, MOMA, and the Louvre; and a J.M.W. Turner exhibition from the Tate Museum in London. Another show, featuring the work of New York artist Jim Dine, was canceled last summer; Dine learned he had been dropped via a voice-mail message.

Even worse, Cleveland's late decision has compromised its ability to maintain a high profile during its downtime. Traveling exhibitions, for one thing, require years to organize.

"That's what one would have expected Cleveland to have planned when they embarked on their construction," says Kaufman, who wrote about the museum in a May 2005 story titled "Chaos at the Cleveland Museum of Art." "Their failure to do that, and the faltering timetable for the construction project, combined with the financial concerns, create an air of uncertainty about the way the museum is being managed."

When trustees named Timothy Rub their new director earlier this month, their sighs of relief reverberated across University Circle. It had been nearly a year since former director Katharine Lee Reid announced her departure, then bolted town to be with her ailing husband in North Carolina. In the interim, the expansion was approved, the museum's walls were laid bare, staffers were herded to new quarters downtown amid layoffs and plunging morale, the fund-raising boss was replaced, and 11150 East Boulevard became a muddy quagmire of construction. This would have been a great time to have had somebody in charge.

It's not as though nobody wanted the work. The Cleveland job, after all, has long been regarded as one of the most desirable in America. The breadth of its collection is virtually unrivaled, and the size of its war chest -- $708 million, even after the depression of the past five years -- dwarfs most others. (The Cincinnati Art Museum, where Rub is leaving the directorship, operates with an endowment of $63 million; Akron's is $19 million.)

Reid ushered the museum into an ambitious project, then walked away when it was time to show the money. But if the project is deemed a failure in any way -- due to cost overruns, building delays, or funding shortfalls -- blame will almost surely fall on the new director.

Rub's first weeks have passed quietly, his only public appearance a hastily organized press conference to announce his hiring.

"The appointment of a new director should be followed by a public statement indicating precisely where the museum stands and setting out a step-by-step schedule for the remaining phases of the expansion," says Kaufman.

So far, that hasn't happened. Rub will remain in Cincinnati until April, helping that museum track down its own new director. But he is sorely needed up here. As fresh concrete is poured and I beams settle into place around a hibernating museum, a thousand questions still await answers.

For Rub, and for his new museum, it will be a long night ahead.

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