In Denver there's another way. It involves an exotic museum bedfellow, the suburban real estate developer. Billed as "part art museum, part public forum," The Lab at Belmar is a contemporary art space in a suburban Denver development. It's a hip, energetic place. It also has an unusual founding story. From the first issue of the Lab's Notebook:
The Lab was conceived in 2003 when a few high-minded young developers of a new, 104-acre urban development called Belmar approached the Denver Art Museum and asked if, maybe, they could borrow some of those nice paintings the museum wasn't using. The point of Belmar was to replace a dying shopping mall with a vital city center for Lakewood, an inner suburb of Denver, and art seemed to be part of that concept. At the time, I was Master Teacher of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museum. Director Lewis Sharp and I quickly convinced the Belmar developers that they didn't want paintings from the basement, but a dynamic alternative to the traditional art museum. Creating a new city center provides the opportunity to create new forms of civic life.You can debate among yourselves whether an outdoor mixed-use retail shopping space constitutes a "vital city center." The point is that developers saw art as a valuable contributor to a self-identified "vital city center," and museum folks saw "vital city center" consumers as a viable audience for a new kind of institution. Many museums call themselves town squares but exist in isolation. The Lab is delightfully, challengingly mixed into an active (albeit manufactured) social space.
There have been studies showing that active support for the arts contributes to healthy, thriving communities. Museum folks wave this research in the face of anyone who will listen each time budgets get cut. But perhaps a more powerful argument--the one currently being tested in Belmar--is that arts institutions support commerce by providing a cultural flavor to otherwise generic retail and mixed-use spaces.
In this way, The Lab is selling an art experience the same way Urban Outfitters sells youth culture--and in my mind, that's a positive, not a negative. The brand, the marquee, the fabulous set of quirky and irreverent programs all support the idea that The Lab is a hip place to be. In turn, from the developers' perspective, that hipness is transferred to the entire Belmar development, transforming it from a standard mixed-use outdoor retail district into a Place where Ideas and Art are Happening.
And isn't that what museums should contribute to their local environments? Like the 826 Valencia project, The Lab at Belmar is both physically and intellectually set into the landscape of popular recreational experiences. Finally, a museum that does MORE than its retail neighbors, offering burlesque performances, tag team lectures, and art fitness training. When juxtaposed against the movie theaters and Ann Taylor Loft, The Lab offers something distinctive. Even the shoppers who walk by and will never enter The Lab are affected by its inclusion in the development. The Lab doesn't have to be a destination. It's part of the place, offering commentary, the way any good art institution should.
I know there can be a dark side to this. In the same way that a civic "nice to have" museum can fall off the political funding agenda, a commercial "nice to have" can get dumped if it doesn't contribute to net revenue. But I don't think an institution funded by real estate is intrinsically less independent than one funded by grants and major donors. Maybe it's a brilliant marketing ploy, but when I see statements in the Notebook like:
The Lab sincerely apologizes to our neighbor Dick's Sporting Goods for hanging a sign in our window stating, "We're not Dick's." Apparently, we are.I laugh, I cheer, and I feel good about the potential of museums in daily life.
What's your opinion of the Belmar model?
Addendum: I received an email from Adam Lerner, head honcho at The Lab, who clarified the financial arrangement as follows:
The support The Lab receives from the developers of Belmar was seed money that had scheduled ramp down from 100% in 2004 to a baseline 30% in 2008 -- and the 30% is actually public money from property tax in the Belmar district through a very complicated and interesting arrangement. I think it matters that we are not simply a developer’s philanthropic project. It’s more honest.And honestly, they still aren't Dick's.