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Palaces for the arts

Designed spaces have an incomparable capacity to evoke feelings and awed responses, something well known to the architects of the world’s great cathedrals, who not only created exceptional spaces of mystery and beauty but also planned their physical layout so that parishioners would move through these spaces in particular ways.  In touring a small but stunning chapel in Paris several years, what I remember most (even beyond the incredible stained glass) was how one had to climb a narrow and frankly uncomfortable stairwell, then entering, upward looking, one turned a corner into a sunburst of openness and light and color, moving from confinement into freedom.

Experience designers, whether fashioning theatre spaces or locations for the display of state power or amusement parks, have to be aware also of the fact that spaces enter the imagination in ways that can subvert the projection of feeling.  Baudrillard refers to simulacra as experiences of the real that are even better than the real, an apparent paradox but one we encounter regularly.  We have in our mind’s eye a certain imagined sense of a place – the United States Capitol, the Statue of Liberty, Monticello – that can be sharply disappointed once we actually visit.  The Statue of Liberty or Monticello seems smaller than we expected.

Despite the evident power of spaces to move and influence us, we somehow have a sense that spaces are neutral or nonideological.  Back in the 1980’s, when federal funding for the arts were under attack because of work by Mapplethorpe and Finley and Serrano, some who favored funding but didn’t want to have to defend particularly controversial art objects proposed that federal funds simply be diverted into supporting facilities, leaving the programming up to local boosters.  It seemed unobjectionable to imagine that voters would support the construction of new Carnegie Halls rather than specific artworks that sometimes would awe but which otherwise might be designed to offend.

Although federal support has not wholly shifted in this direction, in a number of contexts the idea of building support for a local arts scene by constructing art palaces has taken hold.  Several years ago Philadelphia opened its astounding symphony center, Kimmel Hall, and a couple months ago dedicated a new $25 million home for the Philadelphia Theatre Company.  As the New York Times noted at the time, “In recent years many of the 75 companies that form the League of Resident Theaters have looked at their aging or unaesthetic homes and joined what amounts to a nonprofit theatrical building boom.  Since 2000 they and other institutions coast to coast have initiated dozens of construction projects whose combined tab is approaching $1 billion.”

The same phenomena is underway in the construction of more and more spectacular movie houses.  A new cinema center in San Francisco serves its patrons not only candy and popcorn but also roasted game hens and crab cakes.  One of the executives involved said “You have to build a better environment where people want to come and stay.”

Why is all this happening?  Cinemas have been losing audiences to big screen television and are desperate to bring customers back into theaters, and have decided that pampering them is the best way to attract them.  But the arts renaissance underway in many cities often has more to do with the economics of urban renewal than a serious appreciation for supporting the arts in all their diversity.  Sometimes following the idea set in motion by Richard Florida that cities able to create an artistic vibe will be the ones that thrive, cities see arts centers as appropriate to producing (or reproducing) dense city centers.

There’s nothing wrong with this, I suppose.  It’s just hard to imagine some of these sanitized but awesome spaces showcasing artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, or others at work today interested to provoke and challenge their audiences.  But one can hope that by building it, these artists too will come.

SOURCES:  Jesse Green, “Enter the Boosters, Bearing Theaters:  Regional State Companies Find That Replacing Aging Buildings Has Far-Reaching Implications,” New York Times, 9 March 2008, p. 1 Arts & Leisure; Kristina Shevory, “Aiming to Stem Audience Losses, More Cinemas Try a Full-Frills Approach,” New York Times, 20 February 2008, p. C6.


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