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Set in Stone - Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities: 1994-2008

Graph: cost of building cultural facilities

There was a substantial increase in the total cost of building cultural facilities, particularly between 1998 and 2001, the ‘building boom.’


Set in Stone

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The Determinants of Cultural Building

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The Feasibility of Cultural Building Projects

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An Overview of Cultural Building in the United States: 1994–2008

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A Quick Overview


Final Report

This study of cultural building began in 2006 as a response to inquiries from arts consultants who had for some time been working on dozens of building projects across the country and found themselves confronting the same sets of problems with each new client. In many cases, the actual need for a new facility had not been demonstrated (even though there was often great enthusiasm about getting underway with construction); the connection between a new facility and delivering more effectively on mission was in many instances quite murky; realism about how a new facility could be sustained once built was frequently missing – both in terms of the financial resources and staff needed to successfully run a new facility. The list goes on. New facilities would open, organizations would then run into financial problems because of insufficient revenue, or an inadequate endowment, or because they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to build, or because the building was too costly to operate, or it turned out to be beyond the organization’s capacity to administer and sustain.

The need to move beyond anecdotes and newspaper articles and toward an in-depth, empirical study based on the entire cohort of buildings constructed over the last few decades seemed obvious. Without such a study, institutions had no clear and systematic way to learn from one another’s experiences, both positive and negative. While it emerges that there is no single ‘right way’ to undertake a cultural building project, from conducting analyses of more than 800 cultural facilities built since 1994 there emerges a long list of things to avoid, and things to make sure to do.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — each of whom understood how important this research could be for those in a position to launch such building projects — provided generous funding for all the component parts of the study. From the outset, there was agreement that the results of the study needed to be presented in a way that would reach the maximum range of people involved in these facilities projects: trustees, foundation officers, executive directors, development officers, architects, city planners, wealth management advisors, among others. They also suggested that a toolkit be provided for these various participants, and that these be easily accessible on a project website.

The authors of this report gratefully acknowledge the advice and assistance of the cultural leaders, educational leaders, consultants, and others who gave generously of their time and wisdom to this project. Our particular thanks to John Thompson, Kathleen Parks, and Derek Olsen at NORC at the University of Chicago; Betty Farrell and William Anderson at the Cultural Policy Center; and Colm O'Muircheartaigh, Dan Black, and Willard Manning at the Harris School of Public Policy. We are indebted to CultureLab, and particularly Peter Linett, Duncan Webb, Joe Kluger, and Alan Brown for their extremely valuable input at numerous pivotal moments. Adrian Ellis played a key role in getting the project launched, both because of his keen interest and advocacy for a study of this scale. Our funding partners, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — particularly Diane Ragsdale, Susan Feder, and Alice Carle — have provided encouragement throughout the life of the project. Russell Willis Taylor of National Arts Strategies has served as an inspiration and sounding board from the beginning and has been an essential partner in the success of the project. Others who have patiently listened and provided us with useful critiques as this research process unfolded are Michael Tiknis and Abby O'Neil of the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago, and Thor Steingraber at the L.A. County Music Center. The generosity of Joan Harris and the Irving Harris Foundation have provided support at the Cultural Policy Center that makes this, and all our other work, possible. And finally, we want to express our deep appreciation to the executive directors, trustees, and staff members of the participating organizations across the country who gave generously of their time and attention as we completed the hundreds of interviews needed to complete the study.