Middle Ground: Behind an Intriguing Alternative to Risky Capital Projects

One of the most charged questions across the arts philanthropy world is whether expensive capital projects were worth the time and investment.

Detractors note that such projects lead to long-term deficits, a vortex of endless fundraising, a widening of the rift between the “have” and “have nots,” and staff layoffs. Proponents, meanwhile, point to wildly successful fundraising campaigns, engaged donors, record-breaking attendance, and increased national exposure.

Museum directors and donors would be forgiven for thinking they're players in a zero-sum game. But news out of the Windy City, where the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago revealed plans for a $16 million renovation, points to a third way. Turns out museums can commit to a minimally disruptive, lower-risk renovation plan without drifting into nine-figure territory and tearing up city blocks.

"While many art museums have pursued big-budget expansions in their bids for larger and more loyal audiences," the New York Times reports, "the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is rethinking and reconfiguring its public spaces without altering its basic footprint downtown."

Indeed, the focal point of the project isn't a $150 million building renovation but a restaurant. There will also be a hybrid “lounge-workshop-performance space" inside the museum called the Commons, with custom furniture that can be flattened and hung on the walls when not in use. This gathering space will be free to the public, whether or not they pay the $12 suggested admission fee to see exhibitions.

Add it all up and it's safe to say that donors can appreciate this approach from a financial perspective. Sure, many love the thrill associated with writing a multi-million dollar check for a huge renovation. But at the same time, donors prize financial stability. (And they don't like getting letters five years later pleading for funds to pay for unforeseen upkeep costs.) A $16 million price tag for the museum's renovation seems perfectly reasonable and attainable.

Then there's the engagement-focused ethos embedded in the renovation plans. 

Donors, consultants, and philanthropy bloggers continually tell museum directors to create a more interactive and immersive audience experience. "Audience engagement" is the coin of the realm. Viewed through this lens, the proposed Chicago renovation, whose design essentially forces visitors to engage with each other and with the art, embraces immersion and subtlety over a "shock and awe" Bilbao Effect approach.

"Audiences today want a space where they can come together and interact," said Madeleine Grynsztejn, the museum's director. "We are finding that people are really hungry for civil and civic dialogue—now more than ever." She described the purpose of the redesign as "finding new ways to bring art, learning and food together, reflecting how people like to experience culture today."

Remember: We're not talking about a museum in small American city. We're talking about the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, whose donors include, among others, the Baskes Family Foundation, The Bluhm Family Foundation, the Zell Family Foundation, and one Kenneth Griffin. The museum could have easily added an extra zero to the project's price tag, but decided against it.

Why? Here's one theory. "Bigger is not always better," Grynsztejn said.