THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Interview exclusive with Tri-City Museologist George Jacob and Saginaw Art Museum Director Les Reker
15th January, 2009 0
George Jacob is a tri-city based museum professional known for his museum work spanning 11 countries. Trained at the Smithsonian, educated at University of Toronto and Yale School of Management, he has been the founding Director of two museums and has a track record of over $160 million in completed projects. He is also the founder and Publisher of Museum Design Magazine that features museum projects and design focused articles from around the world.
Les Reker is the director of the Saginaw Art Museum and responsible for overseeing one of the tri-cities true artistic treasures. Given the challenges for all communities to discern new ways and methods for augmenting business and tourism, The Review brought each of these professionals together to discuss the notion of Museums fueling and driving economic change and evolution.
Review: It is widely held that museums and cultural institutions directly impact social and economic change. Your thoughts.
GJ: Yes, indeed they do. I would also add science centers to the umbrella of institutions that affect socio-cultural change. In February 2008, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), announced Museums as Agents of Social Change and Development as last year's theme for International Museum Day, which falls on May 18th each year. For the first time since its inception in 1977, ICOM invited participating museums to take action around the globe both in the real world and in the virtual world. Historically, museums have served as repositories of our collective pasts and offered a sense of grounding and appreciation towards one's heritage, evolving history and celebrating contributions from individuals, groups and communities in shaping our future.
Review: Where does economics fit in the role of museums bringing about change?
GJ: The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao opened 11 years ago, transforming a gritty port city in northern Spain into a tourist magnet. The so-called Bilbao Effect was studied throughout the world, as second-tier cities sought to reinvent themselves with their own architectural iconic hubs. Architect Frank Gehry's titanium masterpiece drew visitors from around the world radically spurring an exponential economic growth for the city and the region.
According to a Forbes study, the Bilbao economic impact on the local businesses soon after the museum opened its doors to the public was worth €168 million (approximately $147 million) in 1999 bringing in an additional €27 million ($23 million) to the Basque treasury in taxes and generating over 4,415 jobs in the city.
Les Reker: Cultural organizations account for more than 6 million direct jobs and all or part of over 25 million+ related jobs in America. The cultural sector accounts for nearly 10% of GDP in most states. The American Association of Museums has stated that attendance at Museums is more than at all sporting events combined in the US. Many American cities have taken to heart the advice of Richard Florida, who speaks of the cultural sector of cities as engines of economic development, in his books "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "Who's Your City".
The CVB of any region can tell you of the benefit Museums bring in attracting visitors who spend money at restaurants and hotels. In economically challenged cities like Saginaw, Michigan, a Museum also dramatically improves the quality of life, providing a sense of shared identity and opportunities for visitors to learn about themselves and their world through the eyes of others. When a business is looking to attract new employees, the Museum presents itself as a very alluring
tool in persuading families to relocate. It can also be important in attracting new businesses to a region. It is what pulls a community together and makes it a great place to live work play and raise a family—it gives it a heart. In the end, that is what keeps a community going.
Review: Since Bilbao has there been other museum projects in the making that would bring about transformational economic change?
GJ: Of course. The museum world has been galvanized into many similar projects both in the continental north America and abroad. Some of the most visible symbols of transformation have been triggered by the $426 million Green Renzo Piano building project at the California Academy of Sciences, a $500 million Gehry transformation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the $178 million iconic new deYoung Museum and numerous others that are beginning to change smaller and larger cities. Overseas, the initiatives have been even more spectacular - the most significant being the $26 billion outlay envisaged for a Culture City on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.
Review: $26 billion outlay is bigger than the GDP of many small nations so what could possibly be conceived in such an expensive museum complex? Do elaborate.
GJ: Saadiyat Island, just offshore the emirate of Abu Dhabi will become a new world-class cultural destination. Four renowned architects have been commissioned by Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development & Investment Company for iconic museums and a performing arts centre, which will position the UAE as a world-class cultural destination. Architect Tadao Ando is designing the Maritime Museum, Frank Gehry the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Zaha Hadid the Saadiyat's Performing Arts Centre, and Architect Jean Nouvel is designing the Classical Museum.
Saadiyat Island will be developed in three phases with total completion scheduled for 2018. The master plan envisages six highly individual districts and includes 29 hotels, including an iconic 7-star property, three marinas with combined berths for around 1,000 boats, museums and cultural centres, two golf courses, civic and leisure facilities, sea-view apartments and elite villas. Saadiyat Island is expected to be home to a community of more than 150,000 people – the same population size as Chang Mai in Thailand, Oxford in the UK or Hollywood in the USA.
Saadiyat Island will be developed in three phases with total completion scheduled for 2018. The masterplan envisages six highly individual districts and includes 29 hotels, including an iconic 7-star property, three marinas with combined berths for around 1,000 boats, museums and cultural centres, two golf courses, civic and leisure facilities, sea-view apartments and elite villas. Saadiyat Island is expected to be home to a community of more than 150,000 people – the same population size as Chang Mai in Thailand, Oxford in the UK or Hollywood in the USA.
Review: Is there any other complex being planned along this magnitude towards impacting socio-cultural change?
GJ: Nothing quite this elaborate. However, there are many other interesting museum projects unveiling themselves as agents of regional transformation. For instance, the Nuragic and Contemporary Art Museum project in Cagliary, Italy designed by Architect Zaha Hadid is geared towards energizing and revitalization of the city of Cagliary. The 12,000 sq.ft. museum will be a living, breathing entity that resonates with the indoor and the outdoor connecting the collections and the creative into an evolving cohesion of life itself.
Review: How do you feel the local museums & historical societies in Saginaw, Midland & Bay City are doing in terms of broadening their base of patrons with the presentation of various exhibitions they stage; and a corollary question, are there any areas you feel they should concentrate to improve upon?
GJ: While the local museums, science centers and planetarium are doing an excellent service to attract repeat visitors and their educational outreach efforts, they haven't quite transcended to the iconic realm. For a museum -big or small - to be a destination and draw people from the region and beyond, it must offer something distinctly unique. That sort of interest is often generated when there is a powerful storyline or a historic event that took place at the museum site or a compelling visual and experiential appeal that has a universal pull among diverse audiences.
Review: You reference many international museums and developments in larger cities and metropolitan areas; but how does that translate into smaller regional centers like the mid-Michigan area?
GJ: Over the years, the Mid-Michigan area has had an illustrious history of producing great talent and great minds who have impacted the world we live in countless ways- medicine, chemicals, energy, molecular sciences, automobiles, architecture, music et al. In addition to finding innovative ways to bring these stories to life, there is the excitement associated with shape of things to come...
Les Reker: A sense of community ownership is the key to Museum sustainability. A Museum may have a traveling dinosaur exhibit that attracts thousands, but how does it follow that? Gate receipts are only a part of the revenue pie. To sustain a Museum in a city like Saginaw, support must come from individuals and families in the entire community. They must love the collection—feel an affinity for it, own it—and come back to see it over and over.
While Museums are challenged by the advent of new technology, good Museums don't see it as a threat, but incorporate it where they can. For instance, you can now attend many Museums and use your cell phone as your guide through the exhibits. Most Museums eschew high technology in the exhibitions themselves because it is too costly to maintain. This is where professionalism and creativity become important for the Museum staff.
Review: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing museums today, regardless of the populations of the areas they service?
GJ: The cyberworld has been challenging museums steadily through the last decade or so. As virtual technology, speed of access to information, cross-referencing and secondary source research becomes increasingly accessible, museums must re-invent ways in which to make a physical site visit significantly more memorable than what the cyber space could ever offer...but then again, perhaps the future of museums is possibly embedded in this very paradigm shift.
Les Reker: At the end of the day, Museums are primarily about REAL objects. Not printed words or technological glitz. The Air and Space Museum in Washington is one of the most popular Museums in the US, not because of high technology—it really doesn't have much—but because this is where you will see the Wright Brothers flyer and a Gemini capsule. A Museum is where you can come face to ace with the important cultural icon and the beloved created object. You can see, study and enjoy the object unfiltered in a Museum. This is what is great about a museum and sets it apart from other activities and opportunities presented within a community.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)