Flights Of Folly

At the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, it's an amazingly short walk from slot machines to Cezanne. Built right into opposite sides of the Venetian are two Guggenheim museums, both designed by avant-garde Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and neither yet a year old. The bigger one, a huge box filled since opening day with "The Art of the Motorcycle" (that is, a lot of snazzy motorcycles) is the Guggenheim Las Vegas, while the smaller one is the Guggenheim Hermitage (an offshoot of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia). It's been showing some stellar Picassos and Renoirs. "When I walk from the quiet jewel box of the Hermitage into the 'jingle-jingle' of the slots, it's almost surreal," says the Venetian's president, Rob Goldstein.

The whole juxtaposition of casinos and modern masterpieces once owned by the tsar and Stalin--all brought together in an ersatz Venice--is emblematic of the transformation art museums have undergone in the last generation. Almost all of them have become obsessed with big box-office exhibitions, revenue streams rushing in from their own gift shops and restaurants and "statement buildings" by international star architects.

Right now, there are about 60 major museum expansion projects underway in America alone, with price tags totaling $5.1 billion. The indefatigable Guggenheim, which already operates branches in Berlin and Venice, has plans for a $687 million building at the southern tip of Manhattan and is also casting its eyes on Brazil. While nothing is yet carved in titanium, Rio de Janeiro's flamboyant mayor, Cesar Maia, has put up $2 million to study the feasibility of a Guggenheim landing there. The Brazilians would pay to build it: about $68 million, including an undisclosed premium for what Maia calls "a function of creativity" on the part of world-class architect Jean Nouvel.

Expansionism is contagious. The Hermitage (whose spokeswoman, Larisa Aerova, says, "We have 3 million items in our collection and 2,500,000 of them are in storage") has taken over six "Hermitage Rooms" in London's Somerset House, and is looking to open branches in Amsterdam and Hiroshima, Japan.

For quite a while, art museums have been regarding themselves not as contemplative refuges from the flashy crassness and restless vulgarity of urban life, but as just another glossy spectacle. "Big, temporary shows are regarded as the one sure money pump," says John Walsh, the respected former director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. "But all big shows don't make money, so that's why museums tend to play them so safe in terms of subject matter." As Houston curator Alison de Lima Greene once remarked, the perfect exhibition for the trustees and the public would be "Ancient Gold of the Impressionists." According to a report from America's Association of Art Museum Directors, between 1990 and 2000, capital improvement expenditures rose a mind-boggling 483 percent, art-museum attendance leaped 22 percent and memberships increased 29 percent.

Then came the recession. Museums that went on a building binge when times were good now find themselves feverishly searching for more commercially viable shows to help pay for it. In the last two years a precipitous global stock-market slide has wiped out more than $7 trillion worth of wealth. That has meant sinking endowments and poorer big donors. At the same time, attendance has fallen between 15 percent and 20 percent. Museums are scrambling, retrenching and, in some cases, starting to wonder whether they should have steered more conservative courses on more modest missions.

The predicted completion of the Art Institute of Chicago's $200 million Renzo Piano makeover has been pushed back two years, to 2007. AIC director James Wood says that the project was approved by the board "in quite a different economic climate than it is today." In Milwaukee--where Santiago Calatrava gave a city best known for beer and baseball a Star Trek-looking new museum with a pterodactyl-like brise-soleil for its main skylight--they're still $20 million in the hole. The British Museum is savaging itself with budget cuts and hardly anybody seems to be coming to frolic in Sir Norman Foster's [Pound sterling]100 million Great Court. In Vienna, attendance at the new $135 million MuseumsQuartier--a kind of walled mini-city sheltering a number of museums--has been disappointing, yet there are several new projects waiting to be opened.

Even the trailblazing Guggenheim is feeling the crunch, putting off exhibitions of the Russian constructivist Kasimir Malevich and pop artist James Rosenquist. "I don't think [postponing some shows] is necessarily reflective of a seismic shift in the direction of museums," Guggenheim director Tom Krens insists. "I still think that our fundamental strategy is the right strategy." Yet that strategy--which is persistent expansion--has also seen the Guggenheim's endowment dwindle to less than $40 million from nearly $56 million in 1998, a drop Krens says is attributable to "retir[ing] some of our debt ahead of schedule" and the fact that half the endowment consists of market-depressed equities. In Las Vegas, instead of a projected 2,000 visitors a day, the Guggenheim and the Hermitage generally welcome 1,600--some of them possibly double-counted. Says Goldstein: "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have higher expectations."

The museum bubble has been fueled in part by the notion that civic pride can be bought and that cultural tourism will pay for it. Maia says a Guggenheim museum "will help develop Rio's global identity, and help make the city into an important cultural center again." A Guggenheim Rio will supposedly be able to partake of the greater Guggenheim's continually rotating collection, but it will presumably have to partake, too, of some Guggenheim practices that have caused museum-world eyes to roll. For instance, the Guggenheim's 2000 show of Armani fashions was accompanied by a $15 million gift pledge from... Armani.

Critics of the high-profile, high-growth tactics of institutions like the Guggenheim are growing louder. "The failure of the Guggenheim reaffirms the French model," says Beaux Arts Magazine Editor in Chief Fabrice Bousteau. The vast majority of French museums are publicly funded. But just as McDonald's fast-food restaurants have popped up all over Paris, so, too, is American-model private funding infiltrating French museums. The Louvre takes in about $4 million per year from the private sector and lists Total Fina Elf and JPMorgan among its corporate benefactors. It plans to solicit American corporate donations starting early next year.

At the same time, current methods do have passionate defenders, Krens primary among them. Noting that people accuse the Guggenheim of being "commercial," he says, "Compared to what? The Metropolitan Museum retail operation's 25 stores worldwide is a much larger commercial enterprise." Kunsthistorisches Museum director Wilfried Seipel says, "We need theme shows to attract the locals. The Viennese do not just spend a Sunday at their museum, they need special occasions to go." And Boston Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers says emphatically, "I regard as insulting the idea that great cultural institutions rise on a bubble and sink as it bursts. It's an attitude that has been created by the media." Rogers might want to take a second look at his museum's own branch in Nagoya, Japan--another example of overexpansion causing acute blockbuster dependence. Just under half a million people went to see Boston's fabulous impressionist paintings on loan, but only about a tenth of that showed up for "Voice of Mother Earth: Art of the Puebloan Peoples of the American Southwest." The struggle to keep up payments on the $50 million that buys the museum the right to rent shows from Boston is torturing the local economy. Businesses have been asked for another $28 million to keep the doors open.

Museum directors will tell you they didn't create the predicament--declining public funding, storage problems with their collections, increasing overhead on old buildings--that dictated that they start flirting with commercial culture or die. With some justification they'll blame much of the current malaise on the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And many people around museums will say that the mere presence of genuine art in any context seems to satisfy customers.

Still, many people think the major museums have dug themselves into a hole that goes deeper than their finances. "Museums are in the process of losing a strand of their DNA," says Richard Koshalek, former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "The real core museum experience," Walsh says, "is one visitor in front of one work of art, undistracted by flashing lights and in a receptive frame of mind, ready to absorb what there is to be absorbed. These days, there are fewer of those experiences to be had." Such attrition could have far-reaching consequences. "People will respond to a loss of values at the top of the museum world," says Libby Lumpkin, an art-history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has worked directly with casino moguls attempting to feather a little fine art into their emporia, "in the same way they're responding to the loss of values at the top of the corporate world. They'll walk away." And unfortunately, if things stay the way they are, they'll probably be herded through the gift shop on the way out.

With Dune Lawrence in New York, Christian Caryl in Moscow, Mac Margolis in Rio de Janeiro, Ken Schulman in Boston, Reinhard Engel in Vienna, Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Kay Itoi in Tokyo, Emma Daly in Madrid and Tara Pepper in London