2016-12-19 Victoria & Albert Museum Poster Saatchi & Saatchi

Stewardship of Art in the Face of Museum “Sprawl”.

Ruth Osborne
2016-12-19 Zayed National Museum

Rendering of future Zayed National Museum. Courtesy: Foster + Partners.






Our recent post addressing corporate sponsorship and crowdfunding questions the funds behind the support of our artistic and cultural heritage in the past few decades. In that same vein, we felt it important to call to light where major collections are either dividing themselves across continents or are getting swallowed up by larger institutions. ArtWatch has been vigilant to address issues of collections stewardship and donor’s bequests since it became aware of the debate over the disruptive treatment and eventual move of the Barnes Collection from its original housing in Merion, PA in the 1990s. Our recent coverage has included such issues of museum “sprawl” as the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi (on which construction has yet to begin), as well as the British Museum’s promised loans to the Zayed National Museum (for which “[The British Museum] will receive a significant fee for the loan, which it needs to offset the impact of Government cuts.”). The following, we hope, helps paint a truer picture of how the art and museum world has been taking shape in recent years.

The issue at hand is: how is a collection being stewarded well, according to the original aims of its founders, when funds in the 21st century are more and more being diverted for large expansion projects and long-term loan relationships? Furthermore, what is the true aim behind such massive moves of artworks and exorbitant spending for new spaces by the latest trendy architects? What happens to collections that are forced to be broken up because of financial misconduct and over-spending on expansions? This has come into play in recent years with the Delaware Art Museum’s deaccessions (to shore up their finances after millions were shelled out for a 2005 expansion) and break up of the Corcoran Gallery of Art & College of Art + Design (when they lacked the $100 million needed to maintain their historic Beaux-Arts home in D.C.).

2016-12-19 Save the Corcoran

Save the Corcoran website

In the case of the Corcoran, both the collection and its historic building were acquired by mega institutions that, despite their professed best intentions, will likely end up simply swallowing the unique history of the Corcoran. This is already being seen in the great secrecy and mistrust that has characterized the first year of the College of Art + Design under helm of George Washington University. New administration has reportedly not let long-standing faculty in on important decisions regarding restructuring, and students (both old and new) are feeling ostracized as well, with enrollment down from 404 to 294 students. That’s a 24% decrease since the takeover two years ago. The effects this lack of transparency with professors and students is already being seen in those who are the beating heart of the school, those most dependent on its future and who care most about their school’s impact on the arts world.  With the Barnes Collection years ago, there was a similar – if more vocal – division between the vision of the new administration and the people on the ground actually being affected by their decisions.

While this isn’t expansion and sprawl on behalf of the now-defunct Corcoran, are visitors to the huge National Gallery of Art really aware of the unique origin of these works? Even recent remarks from NGA staff demonstrate that the Corcoran collection, established long before, is still renowned for its works that can now only “fill gaps” in the NGA’s own display. Works too similar to what the NGA already had, though important, were dismissed and offered to other national collections. Besides the small print in the label next to the artwork in whichever gallery building it ends up in, how else is the Corcoran’s history recognized? We hope the plans for the Corcoran to keep its congressional charter to operate as a unique non-profit with the mission to “encourage American genius” will help somewhat to continue its unique heritage. But that is still to be seen.

2016-12-19 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park London

Rendering of the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London featuring a 7-story museum with exhibit space for the Smithsonian. Courtesy: University College London.

Elsewhere in Washington, a merger was announced this year that promises to bring items from the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection over to London’s former Olympic Park alongside pieces exhibited from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. This occurred despite Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton’s hesitancy expressed to the public when it came to making a final decision on the project. The Institution ultimately confirmed plans to create a permanent collaborative exhibition space with the V&A, University College London, London College of Fashion, and other cultural institutions. Besides increased travel activity of artworks in the Smithsonian’s collection, this will also involve another risky factor: a requested nearly 10% increase to its 2017 budget to facilitate the new series of loans.This increased strain on Smithsonian’s budget that could be put towards its current needs, which include the hundreds of millions in infrastructural repairs needed on its Air & Space Museum, as well as the hundreds of millions more it cost to construct the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (just opened Sept. 2016). It nearly established its own independent wing at the Olympic Park, but that was put to a halt earlier this year, due reportedly to “annual operating overhead” that would expectedly “cast a big shadow over the primary objective” of increasing the Smithsonian’s international audience.

2016-12-19 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expansion Renzo Piano

Gardner Museum with recent expansion by Renzo Piano. Courtesy: Boston Magazine.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA also recently announced their $650 million initiative for a huge expansion of their public galleries and conservation spaces for a “new type of museum experience”. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum over in Boston may be proving an alluring example to the PEM, having proudly opened its new Renzo Piano-designed 70,000 sq ft wing, atop a demolished 1907 carriage house, in 2012.  So what is this new museum we have created in the 21st century? James Panero asks this same question in his recent article “The Museum Industrial Complex Is Thriving (But Did The Art Get Lost?”. He highlights major shifts in the attitudes of the public and museums themselves that move away from the art that was the reason for founding any museum in the first place.

2016-12-19 Victoria & Albert Museum Poster Saatchi & Saatchi

V&A Poster by Arden and Stark, for Saatchi & Saatchi, 1988. Courtesy: V&A Collections Online.

Some of this is an attempt to make the arts less “stuffy”, such as the V&A’s brazen 1980s advertisements as “An Ace cafe with a nice museum attached”. In the past few years, as outlined above, museums are increasingly spending billions on visitor services (dining, special events, etc.). What we don’t see in the press is how museums are investing in the fragile art within its walls by investing in preventative measures and curatorial staff. What we do see a lot of is art handled and interfered with more as it is shipped in traveling exhibitions around the world after which conservators are paid to touch up any damages that may have happened while in transit. Historic buildings like the Corcoran are crumbling and forced to give up their works to other institutions; or in the case of the Gardner, are being razed to make way for a perceived better space for visitors to experience.  The art that was placed in galleries decades ago is now having to prove why it should be there in the first place, and why we should take time to look at it.

In this respect, museums are now also turning towards promoting a museum as a space to encounter and participate in social change and self-reflection. Rather than looking at the art, visitors are now told they should come to look at the art as a mirror back onto themselves, something the author argues “it does not learn from history but to show the superiority of our present time over past relics”.  The present is more important. How you see yourself in the work of art is what advertises the museum to more new visitors on social media. But what about the art itself? The “socially oriented museum”, according to Panero, thereby stands in a “non-profit profit motive that seeks ever larger crowds, greater publicity, expanding spaces, ballooning budgets, and bloated bureaucracy – a circular system that feeds on itself – has turned the American museum into a neoliberal juggernaut.”

2015-06-04 - Frick Collection

Support for Landmarks in New York Prevails: Frick Decides Against Proposed Massive Expansion

Ruth Osborne
2015-06-04 - Frick Collection

The Frick Collection from 5th Avenue.

It appears the Board of The Frick Collection in New York has decided against its 2014 proposed expansion plans to build the equivalent of a ten-story tower atop their original 1911 landmarked museum building on 5th Avenue.

Culture reporter at The New York Times, Robin Pogrebin, has reported that the Board decided it was up against far too much opposition to go forward with their current plan and seek Landmarks approval.Among the expansion’s opponents were the group Unite to Save the Frick, several prominent New York artists – including Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Chuck Close  -, and a latecomer to the fight, the Municipal Arts Society. Their letter to Director Ian Wardropper argued that the currently proposed expansion plan would be inappropriate to the treatment of the Frick as the historic landmark it is:

The issue is not the number of gardens at the Frick, or if the same number will be retained going forward. More is at stake; the current proposal risks undermining the singular essence of the Frick Collection by erasing a masterpiece of landscape design—a landmark in its own right.

Questioning the aims of modern development that impact the historic fabric of a city or the exhibition of works of art is an essential part of good stewardship of our cultural and artistic heritage. The groups and individuals who spoke out against such a prominent cultural institution as the Frick are not frightened by the big wigs of the Board. Rather, they are acting on their larger role as artists, architects, makers of culture, and are taking their responsibility to care for their New York City’s heritage to heart. It is crucial to ensure we have a balanced approach to respecting the history that has gone before us that has made us what we are today. It is forsaking a city – and a society’s – cultural development if we forget to preserve important parts of its history that has allowed New York City to become what it is today.

It is the aim of ArtWatch to support that critical voice, to question the aims of those entrusted to protecting and maintaining our artistic and cultural heritage, and not simply accept things as they would seem. We are appreciative of those who do not shy away from asking the hard questions and looking under the surface of bureaucracy and policy that is all too often automatically accepted as infallible. We are humans; we make mistakes. Without actively engaging in dialogue with those in positions of authority, we are not taking ownership of our future but instead accepting fate as others decide it for us.

We look forward to seeing the new plans that are reportedly in the making for another attempt at The Frick’s expansion, and we hope this news encourages our readers that something indeed can be done.

2015-04-16 - The Frick Collection expansion proposed

A Different Era of Historic Preservation: Will New York Landmarks Law be able to last another 50 years?

Ruth Osborne

As the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission celebrates fifty years this month, it seems a pertinent time to consider the impact of this organization on the city’s landscape and its effectiveness in preserving the many histories of New York.

In response to the devastating destruction of Penn Station in 1963, the LPC and Landmarks Preservation Law were established in 1965 to provide a legal advocate for aesthetically and historically important sites and structures that make up the multi-layered character of the city. Since then, there have been wins and losses, demonstrating the necessity of such a law to protect New York’s history from complete disregard by the vested interests of developers and even politicians. Substantial numbers have arisen in the form of community and preservation groups now able to better protect the city’s heritage.

2015-04-16 - The Frick Collection expansion proposed

Proposed Frick Expansion. Courtesy: Neoscape Inc./The Frick Collection.

But it seems even the caretakers of a landmarked building can hold the potential to put its historic character in danger. In recent months, the Frick’s newly-announced expansion has raised many eyebrows, including those of former Frick director Everett Fahy.  Their proposal, announced last June, would add a 106 ft tall addition (equivalent to ten-stories) above its landmarked 1913-14 building by Carrère and Hastings. It would also require the removal of the small 70th St. garden by distinguished 20th century landscape designer Russell Page and its accompanying Reception Pavillion with large windows onto the garden. The group Unite to Save the Frick has formed in response to what they deem a “destructive proposal,” stating their aim to “[preserve] the signature residential character that makes the Frick such a unique place to experience art…We urge the Frick to honor its own tradition of thoughtful additions and explore the many reasonable alternatives that exist for thoughtful expansion and modernization.” They have collected several artists, architects, historians, museum professionals, college deans, and others involved in the governance of various organizations committed to art and preservation. This long list includes former commissioners of the NYC LPC and the NYC Parks Dept., the founder of the Central Park Conservancy, and several other entire groups that have proven their strength in fighting for and funding preservation in New York. Does this sound like a group of advocates who would be denied a listening ear?

2015-04-16 - The Frick Collection expansion Wall Street Journal

Proposed Frick Expansion (showing original and new sections). Courtesy: Wall Street Journal.

But this seems to be happening as the stewardship of cultural landmarks yields to the modernization of museum collections into giant conglomerates. Why must blockbuster exhibitions – which leave lines wrapping several times around the block – be the reasoning behind transforming this private domestic house museum into one with expansive conservation labs and more gallery space? Did Frick intend it as a museum of his artful interiors? Or as a second Met? The fall 2014 press release by current Director Ian Wardropper stated the “exciting plan” will allow the Frick to “now provide the amenities of a twenty-first-century museum.” It reads more like an advertisement for a hotel or apartment renovation than for a museum.

In a recent interview with the the Observer, architect Charles Warren maintains that this proposed addition is in no way a “modest” alteration to the building. Warren, a strong supporter of the United to Save the Frick group, presents a reasonable argument against the changes, despite preservation advocates often being portrayed as having an extreme or unrealistic mindset: “I’m not one of those people who wants to stop time, this isn’t [Colonial] Williamsburg, but is this needed?” Journalist Nate Freeman reminds readers that “several – if not nearly all – recent museum renovation projects have been over-budget and unsuccessful.” The Frick has still failed to make public even a rough estimate for the cost of the expansion.  And while Wardropper insists that these changes are in the interest of creating “ample space” and an “expanded shop” for the Frick’s “growing constituency” and “new educational programs,” as well as opening up the second floor to visitors, the plans by Davis Brody Bond will add only 24% more public gallery space compared with the additional 84% increase in conservation lab space. It will also add another hill of limestone on top of a neighborhood gasping for green space.

2015-04-16 - The Frick Collection garden Russell Page

Garden at the Frick by Russell Page (1977). Courtesy: Wall Street Journal.

We still await the Frick’s proposal to land on the desk of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which should happen any day now. In the meantime, we encourage you to consider just how this will impact the nature of the collection and what precedent this sets for historic house museums and the historic landscape of the city at large. Is there a case for protecting smaller museums against becoming swallowed up by sprawling institutions with billion-dollar endowments? Similar questions arose with the repurposing of the the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. as it entered new ownership recently. Will landmarked sites no longer be able to preserve the very memory they were landmarked for in the first place?

2013-11-21 - Louvre Abu Dhabi model

The Dismemberment of the Louvre: Travels to Louvre Abu Dhabi promise damages and leave Parisian Museum-goers in the Lurch

Ruth Osborne

This week, French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, Louvre Director Jean-Luc Martinez, and several other directors of French museums gathered at the Abu Dhabi Art festival to announce the official opening day for the Louvre’s new international arm, to be called “Louvre Abu Dhabi.”

2013-11-21 - Louvre empty display case

16th century French sculpture removed from permanent display. Courtesy: Didier Rykner.

2013-11-21 - Louvre gallery empty

Empty plinth in Louvre galleries. Courtesy: Didier Rykner.

This museum is set to open on December 2, 2015, which will also coincide with the celebration of UAE’s National Day.[1]  Similar to the Louvre’s other branch, Louvre-Lens (in Northern France), Louvre Abu Dhabi will be host to a continuous series of paintings, sculptures, and other works on long-term loan from the Louvre’s central building in Paris.


The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, announced in 2006 but now set to open in 2017, is of the same ilk. Connected to the mainland by a bridge, similar to the plans for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, this Gehry-designed building will house exhibitions featuring works from the Guggenheim Foundation’s permanent collection, as well as displaying its own. The new Guggenheim and Louvre annexes are all part of the Saadiyat Island conglomerate of cultural centers: including the Zayed National Museum (helped along by the British Museum), a maritime museum, and a performing arts centre designed by Zaha Hadid[2],  who recently and controversially amended a fine neo-classical building in Hyde Park that had been taken over by the Serpentine Gallery.

2013-11-21 Saadiyat Island Abu Dhabi

CGI image of Saadiyat Island, the “world-class” leisure destination and cultural center being developed off the coast of Abu Dhabi that will house the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (bottom left) and the Louvre Abu Dhabi (bottom right).

This development was first reported in 2007, as part of a 30-year major cultural collaboration between France and UAE in the interest of a political alliance drawn up between the two nations that same year.  Arts blogger CultureGrrl (Lee Rosenbaum) commented on her state of alarm at the large bundle of loans set to head out to Abu Dhabi: “People always said that [then-Guggenheim Director] Tom Krens was a ‘visionary.’ But I suspect that even he did not envision how far this would go.”[3] Alan Riding of the New York Times provided a detailed breakdown of the hundreds of millions of dollars exchanged between the head of this contract, the new International Agency of French Museums, and the Abu Dhabi branch in their use of the “Louvre” brand, displaying works from its permanent collection, and housing temporary loan exhibitions.


As the Museum’s website declares, this site will be “a unique, universal museum” where pieces from a range of French museums (including Versailles, Musée d’Orsay, Musée Guimet, BnF, and Centre Pompidou) will serve as the answer to a long-anticipated “place of discovery, exchange and education.” Likening the opening of the new Abu Dhabi museum to ushering in a modern-day Enlightenment, visitors will experience the “shared universal memory” appropriate to a region known historically as a “crossroads for civilizations.”  The long-term loans from France are set to only last 10 years, after which Abu Dhabi will have formed the basis for its own art collection.[4]


This French benevolence to the UAE makes European “savoir-faire” into a sort of parent to the adolescent aesthetic sensibilities of a rapidly-growing Abu Dhabi. As of this month, a list of 300 items from France’s museums are being chosen for loan, while a twenty-first century gallery is intended to house examples of “Emirati culture and artists.”  This Francophile institution, responsible for taking hostage numerous important items from the walls of France’s greatest museums, promotes its purpose to heal past wounds between the East and West. The Louvre Abu Dhabi will therein “avoid the isolation of cultures and disciplines in order to offer a comprehensive history of art.”[5]

2013-11-21 - Louvre Abu Dhabi model


The Abu Dhabi site will be the second new annex of the Louvre to take form after the above-mentioned Lens in 2012, which The Art Tribune has picked apart for the holes its long-term loans have created in the Louvre’s galleries.  As this critique of the Louvre as “a veritable Gruyère cheese” points out, only more neglect to the host museum’s own galleries is in store as a result of its Abu Dhabi ambitions.[6]   Yet a more permanently-damaging consequence will be the impact of increased travel activity on works from the Louvre’s collection. ArtWatch UK has ardently campaigned against the ravages of loaned objects in transit. We suppose that, for the first ten years of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, all one can do is wait reluctantly for the inevitable.

[1] Anna Somers Cocks, “Louvre Abu Dhabi to open on 2 December 2015,” The Art Newspaper. 20 November 2013.–December-/31057 (last accessed 20 November 2013)

[2] “The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.” 2013. (last accessed 20 November 2013)

[3] Lee Rosenbaum, “The Megabucks Global Louvre: Abu Dhabi Details Emerge,” CulterGrrl, 13 January 2007. (last accessed 20 November 2013)

[4] “A Universal Museum – Louvre Abu Dhabi,” (last accessed 20 November 2013)

[5] “A Universal Museum – Louvre Abu Dhabi.”

[6] Didier Rykner, “The Louvre Invents the Gruyère Museum. The Art Tribune. 3 March 2012. (last accessed 20 November 2013)