Strange But True: For Museums, Sometimes Smaller is Actually Better

Here's a riddle for you.

If the "Bilbao Effect," named for the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in northern Spain in 1997, is the term we use to describe the desired outcome of an expensive, capital-intensive project, then what do we call the opposite effect?

In other words, how can we pithily describe a strategy that shuns new mega-wings, opulent rose gardens, and endless fundraising to pay for the project's upkeep, and instead embraces programming and producing new work with artists?

Mull it over. In the meantime, let's turn to the inspiration behind this question.

It comes to us from the Windy City, where the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago announced it received three donations of $500,000, totaling $1.5 million, from the Edlis Neeson Foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, and the Zell Family Foundation. Add it up, and they're the largest gifts the institution has received in its one-hundred-year history.

The donations will support the society’s Next Century Fund, which was launched in 2015 to commission new artworks, as well as to develop educational initiatives and publishing activities. No razing of city blocks, no hotshot European architects, and no gold-plated benches honoring donors could be found within miles of the society's press release.

And yet they have already raised 65 percent of its goal for the fund’s $5 million campaign.

In short, the Renaissance Society is an example of a museum that, while acutely aware of the grating siren song—or is it a symphony?—of the bulldozer and excavator, nonetheless channeled its inner Nancy Reagan and just said no to the Bilbao Effect, despite the factand we're quoting Executive Director and Chief Curator Solveig Øvstebø, here"it’s so much easier to fundraise for buildings."

She's right, of course. 

In a recent post breathlessly titled "Is the Museum World Suffering From Cash-Induced Cognitive Dissonance?" we noted that the mega-rich are more likely to give huge, flamboyant sums than smaller gifts, because the former allows them to show off their name on a glitzy new wing, while unsexy things like "programming" doesn't exactly make the front page of the Times arts section or induce a begrudging and jealous acknowledgment at a cocktail party.

What's more, the real danger of the Bilbao Effect is that it can be scaled downward. Sure, a regional museum won't undergo the kinds of six-figure renovations we see in New York and Los Angeles. But they can spring for something that's proportionately ambitious—and equally risky—if they think funders are willing to play ball. 

So why did the Renaissance Society stand pat and stay small? Philosophy, for starters. Øvstebø said "The Ren" is perfectly contented focusing its attention on working directly with contemporary artists and helping them produce new works. Øvstebø feels that the institution is at its best when it serves as "an engine for artistic production."

How novel!

There's also a subtle element of self-interest—and rightly so—at play here. Smaller goals require less money which, in turn, requires less fundraising. It's a simpler life, and we imagine that deep down, many directors would happily get off the fundraising hamster wheel and trade places with Øvstebø. (Coincidentally, this gift to the Renaissance Society comes just a few weeks after New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently put its $600 million expansion on hold.)

Of course, the Renaissance Society's efforts would be moot if it didn't have foundations willing to support its streamlined ambitions. And so the funding from Chicago-based Edlis Neeson Foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, and the Zell Family Foundation—recently profiled here—should be comforting for other arts organizations who've been lulled into thinking that only huge capital expenditures will reel in donor dollars.

In fact, The Ren is the latest addition to an ever-growing list of arts organizations, many of which are located either in or near large U.S. cities, who, this time channeling their inner Robert Frost, have taken the fundraising road less travelled. A particularly illuminating example is the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Check out our interview with the museum's Director of Philanthropy Nora Maroulis here.

Which brings us back to a catchy name for the opposite of the Bilbao Effect.

Upon further introspection, we feel this post is replete with many exciting options. The Renaissance Society Effect most immediately comes to mind. Or perhaps the Nancy Reagan Reflex—visceral, active, nostalgic.

Or our personal favorite, however, is the wonderfully alliterative Frost Phenomenon, which also has the added bonus of sounding like the next Dan Brown novel.

We'll run with that one for the time being.