City of Los Angeles

On the other side of a major U.S. arts building boom, some civic leaders still think that luring cultural centers—no matter the cost—means instant success.

Back in February, the Presidio Trust canceled a competition for developers vying to build a cultural center on an 8-acre site across from Crissy Field, a former military airfield in San Francisco. One of the three finalists in the mix was Star Wars auteur George Lucas, who is shopping around for space to build a $700 million museum for popular art and Americana. After careful consideration, the board of the Presidio Trust voted unanimously to politely decline his offer (and two other proposals).

The news couldn't be better for Los Angeles, which is anxious to land the Lucas center. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mayor Eric Garcetti aims to tear down the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena (located near the University of Southern California) and host the Lucas museum in its place. "We'd like you to consider opening your museum in a place where its impact can be amplified like no other, Los Angeles," reads an open letter on the mayor's website.

San Francisco has a new hope to build Lucas's museum now, though. The Presidio Trust has offered Lucas a separate parcel, one next door to a place that he already owns, the Letterman Digital Arts Center. Not to be outdone, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee sent Lucas a letter appealing on behalf of his city—an effort co-signed by nearly every former mayor of San Francisco from the last four decades.

Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pledging the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, as it's being called for now, a lease near Soldier Field for $1 per year. That's hardly the silliest bid in a contest that has seen Mayor Lee hang a pro-Lucas banner over S.F.'s City Hall and Mayor Garcetti launch a pro-Lucas social-media campaignUPDATE: Hours after this piece published, the Chicago Tribune reported that Lucas had selected Chicago for his new museum. 

Has everyone lost their minds? Not Carolina A. Miranda, a Los Angeles Times blogger who's launching her own campaign, #WhyLucasNOTinLA. Lucas's collection of Hollywood memorabilia and paintings by the likes of Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell are too treacly, she says, and L.A. has enough of that already.

Some in Chicago are down on Lucas, too. "You can kiss tailgating at Soldier Field as we know it good-bye if this deal gets done," is the bad news one Bears fan gives the Chicago Tribune. "If we’re going to give a billionaire a $1 lease for the property, we’re selling the city short," objects one Chicago alderman.

George Lucas with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Dark Lord of the Sith Darth Vader. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

There are other reasons to be skeptical of new cultural centers and expansions—particularly when cities greet them with irrational fanboy enthusiasm. A new book of research reveals that civic leaders and arts patrons tend to fall prey to specific planning fallacies when it comes to building new museums, performing-arts centers, and cultural expansions.

The book, provisionally titled Cultural Organizations: Building Arts Facilities in U.S. Communities (due out in early 2015 from Routledge), builds on a study performed for the University of Chicago. For that study, a product of the Cultural Policy Center, researchers analyzed new cultural facilities built in the U.S. between 1994 and 2008, a building boom for museums and other arts institutions. That study led three of its co-authors—Joanna Woronkowicz, D. Carroll Joynes, and Norman Bradburn—to write a book to fully outline their findings and conclusions.

"In terms of the study, our major hypothesis was that these major facility projects—new museums, new expansions—would have these positive net benefits to the surrounding urban area," says Woronkowicz, a professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. "And that they would have potentially have less positive or even negative effects on surrounding organizations."

Through case studies, surveys, and construction-cost analyses, the Cultural Policy Center report found that the museum building boom didn't bring the net benefit to communities predicted by the so-called Bilbao Effect. While poverty rates fell and property values generally rose in communities where new cultural centers or expansions were built—good news!—poorer residents also suffered displacement in those areas. Beyond the standard gentrification effect, the researchers' evidence shows, supply may have outstripped demand over the course of the U.S. arts center building boom—leaving some cities with the responsibility to maintain or even pay for cultural centers that they don't entirely need.

Snapshot of the cultural building boom. (University of Chicago)

In the book, Woronkowicz et al. follow up on some of their findings: that expansions and new museum projects don't have spillover effects one way or the other (positive or negative) for nearby cultural institutions, for example. One draft chapter that Woronkowicz shared with me outlines some of the common pitfalls that trap civic leaders pursuing arts additions.

"The types of leaders who provide the passion and drive to build structures of this sort [major performing arts centers] are successful men and women who are accustomed to relying on their own experience and judgment," the book reads. "They depend on what they might describe as 'inside knowledge'—knowledge gleaned from their own experiences, and those of their collaborators' experiences.

"What tends to be absent in their thinking, however ... is 'outside knowledge,' such as what statisticians refer to as 'the base rate' regarding the distribution of projects that did not go as planned," the book continues.

Other traps that civic leaders fall into include hindsight bias and consistency bias: People's memories about decision-making for projects tends to change over time, and people tend to revise their memory of the past to fit present circumstances.

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. (SameOld2010/Flickr)

"While the Philadelphia Orchestra originally embarked upon a building project for the purpose of constructing a new single-purpose concert hall, the opportunity to make it an economic development anchor in downtown Philadelphia partly persuaded its leaders to morph the idea into something entirely different—a PAC [performing arts center]," the chapter explains. "Today, the reason for building the Kimmel Center is frequently remembered by its community as being to revive a distressed former industrial city's downtown."

Costs overruns and project delays are typical symptoms associated with cultural overreach. (And how: a full 91 percent of performing-arts centers built during the study period went over budget.) Cultural Organizations shows that leaders frequently overstate revenues and lowball expenses for new projects: Of the projects they studied, 54 percent featured lower revenues than projected, while 59 percent featured higher expenses. While the authors are discussing organizational leaders and arts patrons specifically, their enthusiasms can be infectious.

Does that mean that the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum is a bad idea? To be clear, this hypothetical project isn't covered in the latest research, which isn't in any case meant to be a guide to cities for deciding whether to build a museum or not. And we know more about Star Wars: Episode VII  (Lupita is in! Wait, so is Tom Cruise?) than we do about the terms for building this museum. 

What the research shows is that where wild exuberance takes the place of passionate support leavened with level-headed analysis, civic leaders and arts patrons make mistakes, and these mistakes can result in budget shortfalls and cost overruns. Cultural projects can be bad for cities—and vice versa.


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