- Now What?
These were the invaluable assets that the people of Milwaukee entrusted to me. And they offered me something else as well, which is absolutely crucial for any architect. In the trustees of the Milwaukee Art Museum, I had clients who truly wanted from me the best architecture that I could do. Their ambition was to create something exceptional for their community. [End Page 17]
I hope that when the new Milwaukee Art Museum opens and people see its fully realized form, that they will feel we have designed not a building, but a piece of the city.—Santiago Calatrava
Poverty in Wisconsin increased faster than in any other state in 2003 and 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and Milwaukee climbed last year into the top 10 of the nation's poorest cities, reaching seventh.
In Milwaukee, more than 62,000 of those living in poverty were children—41.3% of all the children in the city. That poverty rate for children ranks the city fourth in the nation, tied with Miami.—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 30, 2005
It is not surprising that a society ambiguous about religious and war monuments would prefer the museum as a symbol of vitality, enlightenment, and reinvention. What is not as apparent is why cities—even relatively poor cities—are eager to secure the funds to pay for the famous architect and the construction of not just any museum but grand temples to culture.
The sacrifice might have something to do with elusiveness. Most modern museums would like to become incarnations of a city's greatness, but this greatness is hard to hold or to articulate beyond slogans and shopping districts: it is fleeting, untrustworthy, and rarely sensed by any but a lucky few. The trustees of museums and others in charge of the capital campaign do not respond to that uncertainty with humility but with its opposite: the modern museum aims to be undeniable, doubtless. The hope appears to be that, once built, the museum will show how the city overcame itself to be magnificent and, hopefully, magnanimous—the best aspect of the city preserved, Dorian Gray–like, by the semipermanence of architecture, crystallized dreams transcending social and economic problems.
These museums seem, in scale and sacrifice, almost pyramidal. But they have less clarity of purpose and consciousness of the frailty of greatness than those earlier resurrection machines. And maybe for these reasons, there is something at odds, something anticlimatic, about the finished building, which for many people hardens rather than softens moral doubts about cities' agglomeration of capital, sewers, and population.
Doubts that exist prior to the architecture always surface in the operation of the institution: doubts about the need for a huge museum, doubts about better uses for the public money, doubts about the condition of the arts. And so, mission statements and educational programs notwithstanding, the modern museum anxiously searches for its meaning—but never candidly. Instead, the institutions tend to hide problems behind appearances of certitude and scholarship, behind murky programming, so that anxiety can only be seen indirectly (and even then only briefly and against the [End Page 18] efforts of marketing departments) through the firing of museum directors, the familiarity of curatorial choices, the exhibitionist exhibitions, and the "tough realities" of attendance-based programming.
It is possible that the opulent modern museum, rather than embodying the elusive greatness of the city, embodies, more properly, the question: Now what?
The cruelty and insistence of that question suggest why museums have a tendency to avoid self-conscious explorations of their reason for being, offering instead programmatic distractions. Of these, few are as effective as the crowd-pleasing exhibitions. While the isolation of the museum is fundamentally unaltered by esoteric presentations, which are inescapably unpopular, blockbuster exhibitions or oversimplified or sensational (in the banal meaning of the term) exhibitions are usually well-received by the public. Hence, many museums believe in those types of exhibitions, and their administrators and board members would argue that large audiences and the translation of difficult ideas into familiar representations are central to the mission of the institution. Thus, success is usually measured in numbers...