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Roberta Smith continues her one-woman campaign (or so it seems—are there others on this bandwagon?) of bringing thoughtful and reasonable thinking to the world of art making, viewing and buying. Like so many other subcultures, this is one that regularly runs off the rails and into the hollers of ego, greed and elitism.

Her recent piece deals with the dicey challenge of museum expansion, in this case the Whitney Museum’s Renzo Piano project for the west end of the meatpacking district. But her article addresses the larger issue that sits right behind the Whitney’s expansion: Why are so many museums so poorly designed for art viewing?

Here’s her brief take on the uptown Whitney:

Its 1966 Marcel Breuer building has all the disadvantages of starchitecture and few if any of the rewards. Even in a country where museums are rarely designed with art in mind, it stands out as relentlessly unforgiving to works of all styles and periods. If the stone floor doesn’t kill, the oppressive overhead concrete structure almost undoubtedly will.

Unlike the Guggenheim, the Breuer building is not considered a must-see destination by tourists, regardless of what shows are on view. And Breuer’s Brutalist bunker is not getting better with age, or inspiring artists to come up with new, exciting uses for it as Wright’s spiral is.


The larger problem of museum design as Smith sees it is fundamental to the infrastructure of influence that seems to be de rigeur for most museums:

Not to diminish the financial and logistical risks of a venture like this, but New York’s recent museum debacles have taught us that space can justify the means. The success of an undertaking like this hinges not on the size but on the quality of the space, which is never thought about enough and never by the people who really know what they’re doing where museums are concerned. The idea that trustees have the final word on a museum’s design, considering all the atrocious buildings that have been erected in this country, is chilling. When will they ever learn to listen, and to people who have the right experience? They would get better spaces if they would loosen the reins.

A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles, as is the case with the Guggenheim (no disrespect intended). It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly. Its spaces set a standard for display that seems to have been lost in Manhattan, and it was lost, again, because of trustee arrogance and administrative mismanagement that put too many of the Dia’s eggs in its Beacon, N.Y., basket.

So what’s a step in the right direction? Common sense perhaps. Who should the museumologists listen to? Who knows how to make art look good? Clearly the answer is not architects nor is it the trustees. Smith suggests a well chosen committee of artists and dealers to review, comment and (hopefully) influence these projects. For the Whitney, she is quite direct: Hire Larry Gagosian as a consultant. After seeing the Gagosian Gallery’s exhibit of Calder’s work, that choice seemed intuitively obvious to her.

It’s a thought.

Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco has all the makings of a destination building. Think of this as the Bilbao of the science museum world.

Legends about its remarkable genesis are already circulating: One we heard was that when Piano visited the existing structure in Golden Gate Park (a building I remember from my Bay Area childhood) to pitch his innovative renovation, he arrived without a single sketch. While other architectural firms were accompanied by large delegations and 3-D models, Piano brought no one with him except his daughter. And after he spent his time listening to people and asking questions, it only took a few quick sketches and a few visionary words to convince the CAS he was someone who understood what they were trying to achieve.

The structure is light-filled, open, inviting, exciting, and yet not so overwhelming that children are hopelessly lost in the miasma of sensory overkill. And yet there is so much under one roof—a four-story rainforest, an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum and lots of open public space to eat, sit, talk, relax. Even on a day with lots of visitors and tons of kids, the sound and body density in the structure feel well managed. The food offerings are also in keeping with a theme of innovative and fresh. (Know of any other museum or public space that has a separate station for spring rolls made to order on the spot?)

The aquarium is underground, and it is the first aquarium I’ve ever seen that doesn’t feel like it was designed in 1952. This feels cool and fast. Yeah, this place has serious Wow factor. Even the lighting of the jellyfish tank seems designed to make it possible for everyone with their ubiquitous digital camera in hand to take spectacularly-lit photographs of ethereal floating undersea creatures.

And then there is the business of the roof. Piano wanted a living roof, with a legitimate ecosystem of its own flora and fauna. They planted hundreds of native plants, didn’t water them and then simply waited several years to see which species thrived. The texture and life of the roof is as beguiling as its rolling terrain that was designed to reflect the San Francisco hills that are visible from the site.

How many places do you know that are both beguiling and educational? Not many. And according to the new director Greg Farrington (who cheerfully joined us at lunch to engage us in an impromptu discussion of the 155 year old Academy) the attendance in the first week has exceeded everyone’s most optimistic estimates. Yes the lines are long, but I find it easier to forgive when the queueing is for the worthwhile and deserving.

Piano definitely nailed this one.

We’ve all gone to San Francisco for a few days, and for a good cause: My life long friend Kevin Simmers–our history began when we were 11 years old–is getting married to his partner of 22 years, Ed Carrigan.

The photograph above was taken through one of the new De Young Museum’s many perforated screens. How revelatory it is when the obscuring scrims of our lives can lift, bringing our legitimate, authentic selves into full view. I am so honored to be able to stand with Kevin and Ed and to give their partnership the full blessings of a joyous community of well wishers.

The photo below was taken of Kevin and Ed from the tower of the De Young last year. Through the windows you can see Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences, still under construction at that time. This amazing structure is finally completed and opened to the public last weekend, in appropriate synergy with the more personal celebration that brings me and my family to San Francisco. (The New York Times review of Piano’s building by Nicolai Ouroussoff is posted on Slow Painting.)

Mid lifers who marry: It is an extraordinary gesture. This is the second close friend who has made that step this year. I take these decisions as an undeniable vote of optimism in a world that could be beating us into cynicism, into feeling an unraveled hopelessness in the face of so much that is wrong. Howard Zinn’s words–“Of course you have to have hope! If you don’t have hope then there really isn’t any!”–ring in my mind constantly these days. This weekend will feed that, I know.