Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Lab at Belmar: Museums Coming Soon to a Mall Near You?

Let's say you want to start your own funky, irreverent exhibition and program space. How would you start? Try to convince folks at a big institution to give you a forgotten wing? Start an exploratory project to open a small, probably struggling, museum? Raise a ton of money for a world-class building and pray for visitors? Forget your grand dreams and try to weave awesome strangeness into your regular museum job?

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.

8 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Although not quite the same thing, I've often thought that malls were the best places for galleries and museums in suburban environments. While galleries survive in the suburbs, they hardly thrive, because the infrastructure makes the gallery a destination. And if you want to visit more than one gallery at a time, you need either a car or a lot of spare time.

Art in incidental spaces is key for suburban art experiences. Suburbs don't lack good art, talented artists or effective spaces -- they just lack the awareness and access that neighbouring cities are able to provide their citizens.

Unknown said...

As a student new to museum studies, I feel validated to read about the "museum in a mall" concept of the Belmar development. I recently posted a similar idea in a class discussion about how museums can reach out to diverse audiences in their communities. I wrote:

"One way to reach diverse audiences and inspire them to learn about art and the museum's collections is to take the museum out into the community. A project to set up small exhibits in various public venues would give the general population (inherently diverse in most communities) a chance to get acquainted with the museum and its collections. Exhibits might include one large object or a few smaller ones, with accompanying text (in multiple languages, depending on the location of the exhibit) in a glass-enclosed display cabinet. Such exhibits could be set up in shopping malls, on university campuses, in lobbies of skyscrapers, in churches and temples and mosques, or even sports arenas. Museums typically have numerous objects in storage or
used in school loan programs that, when combined with some creative
exhibition design, could be put to another use in this outreach program. Objects would be chosen with an eye toward the public's likely interest, but using these exhibits as "educational advertisements" would draw attention to the museum and indicate that there are opportunities to see and learn more about its collections by visiting the museum."

Clearly, the Belmar project is more elaborate that the small, unattended exhibits I imagined, but I agree with you, Nina, that is is a very positive move for the museum and the community.

Marcos said...

In the mid 90's the Winter Park Mall in Winter Park, Florida went through a transition and became an arts mall. It housed various studios for artists (reclaimed space from an old department store), and they were able to use store fronts for gallery space. It was a great resource for local artists, and they installed two stages for community theater presentations. The most well know artist who held space at the art mall was Keith Campbell, aka scramble campbell: http://www.scramblecampbell.com/

I tried to find some more reference material for the mall, but could not locate on the Orlando Sentinal (though I know they wrote a few articles about it).

At the time, Orlando did not have a home for contemporary art, and the mall space served as a great space to house art shows.

Unfortunately, the mall was demolished, and then rebuilt as a bigger mall.

San Francisco Mobile Museum said...

When I worked on the Outdoor Exploratorium, we investigated (and sometimes prototyped) at BART stations, the waterfront, etc. The public was very enthusiastic about it, and most often I heard comments such as "you mean for free?".

Anonymous said...

In my mind, airport museums are sort of related. Although generally people don't go there just to hang out, that's often the situation you find yourself in. I've come across surprising and wonderful exhibits in airports. The Oakland Museum does some great things at the Oakland Airport...if anyone is passing through, be sure to take a look around.

Nina Simon said...

Relatedly, last year I wrote a post about design lessons museums can learn from malls. The "ready to browse" mentality is one I see as particularly open and conducive to popping into a museum.

@Tamara, I find airports and airplanes strangely personal social spaces. Something about being enclosed in a place between places. More content about transit to come...

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