Should our cultural anchors actually have weight? And should they be in the centers of our major cities? Those are the questions that I ask when I consider the bits and pieces of news that indicate that many of our downtown cultural institutions are in trouble, are moving, or are renovating their spaces to concentrate on places for people instead of storage. The Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., is an example of the former two (along the with the Detroit Institute of Art and a few other major art museums), while the New York Public Library’s plans to move most of its books from its 42nd Street flagship location to New Jersey is an example of the latter.
The Corcoran has had a tumultuous decade. It started the new century off with plans for an expansion, to be designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA. When the funds for that plan were not forthcoming, the board, after changing directors and direction, bought a school far away from its White House–adjacent site and planned to move its art school there. It then switched again and said it would sell the property to the Rubells, Miami–based developers and collectors, and develop programming with them. Then the board put the parking lot next to its Ernest Flagg–designed building, originally the site of the Gehry addition, up for sale. Now it is talking about selling the main building and moving to Alexandria, Va.
The Corcoran is a major arts institution with a great collection, especially of American art. Should it not be right next to the Mall, within walking (well, hiking) distance of most of the Smithsonian museums? Maybe, but on the other hand, D.C. has sprawled far into the surrounding states, and those communities need culture as well. The core has more than enough institutions to serve the millions of tourists. Alexandria actually seems a bit close to me—why not Tyson’s Corners or one of the other Edge City nodes? That, at least, would be my theoretical position, although practical concerns would make me much more cautious. First, would anybody come see the Corcoran out there? Second, what would happen to the beautiful building, which was so well designed for its purpose? Before there are answers to those two questions, I would be very worried about a move.
I have similar thoughts about the New York Public Library’s plans. On the face of it, the move is a logical one. Libraries are becoming places where you go to connect to information in any number of ways, many of them digital. They are community centers based around the idea of accessing, acquiring, and sharing knowledge—no longer book stacks with reading rooms attached. The same is true for other institutions: At the Cincinnati Art Museum, where I am director, we will be moving a significant part of our collection off site into accessible storage in the near future. The plan is also part of a large development, in which all of our books exist in the cloud or in Amazon.com’s warehouses. Moreover, downtown is a place where you come for access, connection, and entertainment. Production occurs elsewhere, as I recently noted in another blog post. The idea that the 42nd Street Library (or Schwartzman Building, as it is officially called) would be such an anchor and full of mainly public space seems logical to me.
TBut there are, again, two issues. First, the location of the off-site storage in Princeton, New Jersey, puts a considerable lag between the time when you request a book and when you will be able to read it. In a world of instant availability that creates a problem. And not just for scholars, as it creates a barrier in time and space. Second, the Carrere & Hastings building is designed, as some critics have pointed out, with magnificent public spaces and ingenious stacks. Though I am not sure that it is so significant that it deserves landmark protection, it is true that the space will be difficult and expensive to convert into one that human beings will be able to enjoy.
So my answer to whether both moves are right is: theoretically, yes, practically, not yet. I do hope some of the questions will be answered and that cultural institutions can find their right place in our sprawling world.