The New York Times
April 28, 2007
Cooper-Hewitt Is Determined to Expand, Despite a Host of Critics
By ROBIN POGREBIN
Given the recent travails of its parent, the Smithsonian Institution, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum may seem relatively hardy.
Just two weeks ago, senators at a hearing in Washington exhorted the Smithsonian Institution’s museums to raise more of their own money rather than rely so heavily on the government. As if in direct reply, the Cooper-Hewitt announced the very next day that it had raised $21.5 million to expand and renovate its mansion on Fifth Avenue — all of it from board members.
A few days later the museum announced that it had hired Richard Gluckman, a prominent architect, for its building project, and Cara McCarty, a respected design expert at the St. Louis Art Museum, as its new curatorial director.
In a positive sense, “we feel something of a poster child for the rest of the Smithsonian,” said Paul W. Thompson, the Cooper-Hewitt’s director. “We are aggressively fund-raising.” The $21.5 million amounts to half the cost of the museum’s planned $43 million expansion.
Yet even in the middle of progress, the Cooper-Hewitt, which collects and exhibits design objects, has drawn criticism for what some art-world figures view as tepid ambition and lackadaisical collecting. In an independent report commissioned by the Smithsonian and released last month, a committee of experts said it was worried about the museum.
“We remain concerned about the museum’s future viability, even with additional space and increased levels of funding, given the modest size of audience, limited programs and scope of collection,” said the report by the panel, composed of the leaders of seven prominent museums.
Cooper-Hewitt officials counter that the report was based on outdated information and that while they welcomed some of its recommendations — like having some shows travel to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum — its conclusions were misguided.
“There is no question that was just wrong,” James Rosenthal, the president of the Cooper-Hewitt board, said in an interview. “By any business standard, this is among the most viable of the Smithsonian museums, the most financially independent.”
To be sure, the Cooper-Hewitt’s financing structure seems more secure than that of the other 18 Smithsonian museums. While those museums get 70 percent of their money from the federal government and raise the rest privately, the Cooper-Hewitt does exactly the opposite, raising 70 percent privately and receiving 30 percent from the federal government.
The report itself acknowledged: “Of all the Smithsonian’s art museums, Cooper-Hewitt has the highest proportion of funding from private sources and is the least reliant on federal funding.” And Mr. Thompson points out that the institution’s income has risen by 69 percent in the last five years.
But the panel also homed in on a severe lack of space at the museum and holes in its collecting. The report’s tone echoed a prevailing view in the museum world that the Cooper-Hewitt is a sleepy institution hampered by its setting in the ornate turn-of-the-century Carnegie Mansion.
Mr. Thompson conceded that “everybody recognizes that the mansion is a problem” and that there were serious gaps in the museum’s collection.
While its holdings of wallcoverings and textiles — from 18th-century French laces to Arts and Crafts-style wallpapers — are relatively rich, museum officials say, it has failed to keep pace in areas like modern Italian lighting and the design of electronic gadgets.
“The 20th century rather passed the Cooper-Hewitt by,” Mr. Thompson said. “We’ve had to accelerate our collections, particularly graphic design and product design.”
“We have quite a bit of work to do,” he added.
One of Ms. McCarty’s mandates is to bring the collection up to date. “I’m keen to build the modern and contemporary design collection, which I know is one of their weaknesses,” said Ms. McCarty, who assumes her post in July.
“The Cooper-Hewitt’s collection is very much shrouded in mystery,” she said. “I don’t think the public has a strong sense of all the great collections that they have there.”
This is partly because of the museum’s limited space for shows. Exhibition space will increase by 80 percent in the expansion, which calls for moving the third-floor library and administrative offices to two adjacent town houses that the museum owns on East 90th Street. That will allow for the creation of a big, open contemporary gallery space suitable for objects as large as automobiles and sailboats.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the first floor, where the exhibitions constantly struggle with the paneling and architectural details of the late 19th century,” Mr. Gluckman said.
The museum also plans improvements to the mansion, including the addition of a freight elevator. About 70 percent of the Cooper-Hewitt’s permanent collection of about 250,000 objects is to move to a storage center in the Bronx.
“We need to organize the spaces more efficiently within the mansion, and pull things out of the mansion that aren’t as relevant,” said Paul Herzan, chairman of the board. “That’s what good design is all about.”
Mr. Gluckman said he would complete a design in the next three months.
Part of the task involves creating a new restaurant that exploits the potential of the Cooper-Hewitt’s garden, and a contemporary addition that also unites the museum’s disparate buildings.
“There is too much disjunction between the town houses and the mansion,” Mr. Thompson said. Construction is expected to begin next winter and to be completed in 2010.
Mr. Gluckman’s firm, Gluckman Mayner Architects, has become known for designing contemporary additions to existing buildings. For the Museo Picasso in Málaga, Spain, for example, which opened in 2004, the firm restored a 16th-century palace, inserted six new buildings and created a new public plaza.
“He has a particular sensitivity to contemporary insertions in historic structures,” Mr. Thompson said. The firm Beyer Blinder Belle will be the executive architect on the project.
To be sure, the turmoil at the Smithsonian, whose secretary, or top official, Lawrence M. Small, stepped down last month after allegations of improper and extravagant spending, could have implications for the Cooper-Hewitt. (The institution has an interim secretary in place and is searching for a permanent successor.) Even though its museums are in some cases dilapidated and short of money, Congress could decide to penalize the Smithsonian for poor management in its budget appropriation in June. But the Cooper-Hewitt appears determined to build on its progress.
Income from museum memberships, the gift shop and donors increased to $8.7 million in fiscal year 2006 from $5.1 million in fiscal year 2000. The board, the Cooper-Hewitt’s fund-raising linchpin, has expanded to 33 members from 23 in 2000. A major gift came from the Target Corporation through Michael R. Francis, a trustee who serves as an executive vice president at Target. Other contributors included Connie and Harvey Kreuger; Barbara and Morton Mandel; Arthur and Janet C. Ross.
Attendance at the museum rose to 206,745 in 2006 from 128,973 in 2005, partly because the Cooper-Hewitt began staying open on Mondays last May.
Those advances have prompted some Smithsonian officials in Washington to dissent from some of the external review committee’s comments on the Cooper-Hewitt.
“I’m extremely bullish about their ability to pull themselves forward,” Ned Rifkin, the under secretary for art at the Smithsonian, said of the museum. “They’ve certainly given us a clear indication that they’re determined and capable of reaching their goals.”
And as the Smithsonian scrambles to address the problems of its institutions, its board of regents has sought to reassure the Cooper-Hewitt of its support.
“Cooper-Hewitt is a viable and essential part of the national trust,” Roger W. Sant, chairman of the regents’ executive committee, wrote in an April 11 letter to the Cooper-Hewitt board. “The Smithsonian’s commitment to Cooper-Hewitt remains strong now and in the future.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company