Is the Museum World Suffering From Cash-Induced Cognitive Dissonance?

Photo: Construction of the new Whitney Museum

Take a close look at the IP writer job description and you'll see the following responsibility: "Occasional dabbling in armchair psychology encouraged." And so today, we'd like to indulge our inner Leon Festinger—it was his theory, after all—by asking, "Are museums plagued by a case of cognitive dissonance?" 

Hear us out. 

According to Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is the "mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who... is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values." As far as the art world is concerned, this conflict derives from what we call the "Bilbao Effect."

It's the idea that an incredibly splashy and expensive museum will make the museum itself a destination for tourists and art-lovers alike. It's all the rage in the museum world nowadays. In New York City alone, a dozen or so museums have committed to close to $3.5 billion in capital expenditures. 

That's existing belief No. 1: the idea that you need to spend gobs of money to keep donors and audiences engaged. 

Then there's existing belief No. 2: the Bilbao Effect resembles a boomerang. And not in a cool Crocodile Dundee-fending-off-the-bad-guys sort of way. Museums, obsessed with "Keeping up the Jones" eventually and unwittingly find themselves entangled in a spiraling cost vortex. It's sexy to ask shareholders to donate for the construction of a new modern art wing; it's far less so when that wing requires routine maintenance.

If you view this conflict as a pendulum, recent data suggests that the lure of the Bilbao Effect is triumphing over incrementalism and caution. According to a recent article in Quartz magazine, museums continue to grow and the money keeps pouring in. We learn that museums spent nearly $5 billion between 2007 and 2014, according to the Art Newspaper. The publication’s study of 75 museums across 38 countries found that when it came to building new wings and galleries, the U.S. spent more than all the 37 other countries combined (thereby also proving that the cash-strapped European/socialist arts funding model may be highly overrated).

The article cites two reasons why museums need to expand. The first is practical. Museums need a place to house their ever-growing collections. The second, however, speaks to that cost vortex. They need to attract new gifts from donors. And so a vicious, almost counterintuitive cycle is perpetuated. Fundraisers need money. To appeal to donors, they launch a massive capital project. Donors nod approvingly and open their wallets. Unforeseen downstream costs pile up, and even more money is needed. Solution: How about a new capital project? 

The only way this cycle stops is if donors pull back. But evidence suggests that they're enjoying the ride. David Geffen is just the latest example, with his big gift to MoMA. Neal Benezra, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose new $305 million extension opens next month, said, "Patrons are also more likely to stump up for a splashy expansion than for a lower-profile renovation or acquisition." As the Quartz notes:

These individuals 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 the latter may go utterly noticed in the news. That’s largely why U.S. museums have seen multi-billion-dollar growth in recession-era times: The uber-rich are relatively unaffected by economic trends, and they have an image to keep up.

In fact, it's not until the end of the Quartz piece that we finally get to the boomerang component of the Bilbao Effect. "Once an expansion is out of the construction phase, its day-to-day operating budget can soar well into the millions," the article states, "forcing museums to launch fundraising campaigns and seek even more money." (In the psychology world, we can sum this up in one word: denial.)

At the end of the day, these are risks that big-time museum directors are more than willing to take. If they exhibit any "mental stress or discomfort" associated with the conflicting ideas around gargantuan construction projects and indefinite fundraising, they're not overtly showing it. (The term here is repression.)

In fact, data suggests the building boom will only intensify over time. And so, if we were to sit down with a director of one of these huge museums, we'd ask the following: "In the absence of rolling out ambitious capital projects every eight years for perpetuity, can your existing donor base absorb planned and unplanned post-construction costs? If not, what's the plan to close this gap? And do these capital expenses detract from less sexy, but equally important, projects or operational and administrative needs?"

We'd carefully consider the director's answer, jot down some notes, and then, very deliberatively, inch a bit closer, put the end of our pencil in our mouth, narrow our eyes, and say, "Very interesting... Now tell us about your mother."