Building Better Buildings for the Arts

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The Durham Performing Arts Center
The Durham Performing Arts Center
The Durham Performing Arts Center

In 2007, some very bright people at the University of Chicago decided to examine the recent cultural building boom, looking at the motivations, extent and impacts of the recent and massive wave of performing arts center, theater and museum building projects. The goal of the study was to establish a research base for anyone considering the development (or redevelopment) of cultural facilities. The effort came to be known by the name of its final report: Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities, 1994-2008.

As a management consultant to people who build and operate performing arts facilities, my initial reactions to the project ranged from outright panic (what if they say I’ve been telling my clients the wrong things?!?) to a deep skepticism that a bunch of academics could reduce my crazy world to a dry research paper with a couple of complicated graphics.

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As it happens, the whole thing has turned out quite well, and I was deeply impressed by the amount of information that emerged, the thoughtfulness of the work and its potential value to the sector. And, thankfully, I was even allowed to be a part of the process, having advised the group at a few key points along the way.

Set_in_Stone__Building_Am000001The latest output from the Set in Stone project is a great book: Building Better Arts Facilities: Lessons from a U.S. National Study, by Joanna Woronkowicz, D. Carroll Joynes and Norman Bradburn. Woronkowicz was the graduate student who turned this work into her Ph.D. thesis. Joynes is the former head of the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, where the research project was born. And Bradburn is a leading professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Bradburn and Joynes are also senior fellows at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which managed all of the research.

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The particular focus of Building Better Arts Facilities is why things go right or wrong in the development of cultural facilities. There are a number of case studies, including comparisons of two big projects (Philadelphia and Chicago), a look at the rise of performing arts centers (good examples in Kansas City and Las Vegas), a look at some projects in the South (Miami and Miami Beach), projects in smaller communities (Omaha and Durham), and a review of museums of various shapes and sizes (Kansas City, Mobile, Davenport and Biloxi).

I read the whole book (I swear), but paid the most attention to the final chapter where conclusions are drawn and guidelines proposed for successful cultural building projects. I would encourage others in the field, as well as those considering a facility development project, to buy the book and read it closely. But here’s what I got out of the closing chapter:

Passion: Projects need passionate leadership to advance. That passion is critically important to persuade others to support the effort and to maintain the forward momentum of the project through thick and thin.

Collective Impact: Projects must have the backing of leaders from different sectors who see the potential to solve important organizational, community and societal problems — as opposed to helping only one group in one way. The idea of collective impact means that facility development can be advanced with cross-sector coordination, creating a more powerful constituency to advance the effort.

Architects and Architecture: Here, it’s all about putting the right level of emphasis on the design and the designer. There are many cautionary tales about the pursuit of The Bilbao Effect, but just as many projects run into trouble by selecting architects lacking the skills and relevant experience to develop great cultural facilities that match the resources of the community.

Building Sustainable Organizations: It must be understood that the greatest single challenge in developing a cultural facility is sustaining the operating organization after it opens. I triple-underlined this one.

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Predicting Demand: Organizations and communities justify facility development projects based on predictions of demand, often with the help of consultants. Not surprisingly, the research suggests that feasibility studies often include too-high revenue projections and too-low expense projections. What does seem to distinguish successful projects is a very conservative approach to demand with lots of sensitivity analysis and contingency planning, i.e., What happens if we don’t hit those targets?

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Being Flexible: There are two important elements to this. The first is that projects need to be flexible in development, adding, dropping and adjusting scope and scale as the environment (economic, political, cultural) shifts. The second is that completed facilities must also be flexible, able to respond to shifts in disciplines, audience preferences and technology. I often think of flexibility as a swinging pendulum, as we seem to go through periods of extreme flexibility in facility development (there were waves in both the 1970s and the ’90s), followed by periods in which the single-purpose hall dominates. I think we’re heading towards more flexible halls again these days, aided by amazing technologies in areas like seating, staging systems and room acoustics.

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I sleep better having read the book. I’m still worried about the veracity of our studies in this rapidly changing environment, but it’s good to see there are some clear patterns of behavior as well as organizing principles that lead to better buildings. Now all we have to do is convince our clients of that…

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