Cultural institutions and the challenge of public space

From Story Act 2, 2016

Community and economic development scholar Carl Grodach weighs in on the conversation.

Cities around the world are facing multiple challenges, not least of which is loss of public space. Community and economic development scholar Carl Grodach suggests reductions in our shared spaces aren’t just the result of increased urbanisation, but also of the way many existing public institutions function. Around the world a variety of cultural institutions – from libraries, galleries, museums & performing arts centres – are rethinking their role as important players in the collective lives of our cities. 

Cultural institutions provide cities with some of their most significant public spaces and, in this capacity, play an integral role in reflecting and shaping urban life. At their best, our performing arts centres, museums, and libraries create opportunities for social connection, cultural expression, and political engagement. However, this publicness is often delivered in the form of highly programmed and commercialised experiences aimed at branding the cultural organisation and the city. Public cultural institutions have long defined the conflict between civic and market values. They should redefine their mandate around their role as public spaces rather than selling experiences.

The interesting thing about public space is that it is both a venerated goal of urbanists and a quixotic dream defined by contradictory roles. Public space may serve as a means of building community. It is a place where we come together and partake in shared traditions and celebrations. Yet, public space is also the common ground we share with strangers. It is a stage for a culturally diverse society—a particularly important role for countries like Australia that are wrestling with their increasing diversity. At the same time, public space can be a site of political dissent and debate, but it is also simply for leisure, a place where we go to see and be seen.

To even begin to fulfil these conflicting roles, our streets, public squares, parks—and cultural institutions— must be open and flexible. Yet the reality is that many of our public spaces are privately owned and managed, or closely regulated by government. Whether performing as an amenity to attract customers to downtown shopping districts and malls, or as a symbol of civic grandeur, public space is frequently designed and policed to regulate behaviour and communicate a specific form of public experience. The design of pedestrian amenities like benches and sidewalks, CCTV, and private security guards all serve to regulate use and send signals as to who belongs. No sleeping, no panhandling, and no skateboards. No buskers without the appropriate permit. Instead, we have big screen TVs that broadcast talk shows in central public squares in front of city hall. As public space has become regulated and commercialised, it also becomes a means to exclude rather than foster inclusion and civic engagement.

Cultural institutions are at the centre of these public space conflicts. As they have worked to shed their elitist past and become more inclusive, they have tended to accomplish this through consumption, branding, and spectacle. Facing financial challenges, most cultural institutions have become purveyors of entertainment experiences rather than public spaces. They host major shows and exhibitions with movie tie-ins like Jurassic World or host luxury products like Bulgari and Chanel, which provide a vehicle for corporate branding in return for attracting new visitors and donors. High-end restaurants, themed cafés, and specialised merchandise from Monet T-shirts and mugs to museum-branded bottled water have become standard alongside programmed activities such as yoga, wine tasting, and all-night DJs.

At the same time, cultural institution architecture has moved from neoclassical temples of art and brutalist fortresses to spectacular and iconic buildings designed by renowned architects. Yet, many of the most impressive cultural buildings like the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao or even the Sydney Opera House actually work poorly as integrated public spaces. They may offer grand views and remarkable architecture, but remain isolated monuments disconnected from the surrounding city.

These cultural complexes have nonetheless become fundamental to city redevelopment strategies the world over. This is less to bring art and creativity into the lives of a city’s diverse publics than to impress global investors, attract tourists, and enhance centre city property values. Cities ranging from Brisbane to Hong Kong, Oslo, and Dallas, Texas collect their major cultural institutions in highly visible and centralised districts rather than integrating them throughout the city where they might amplify local street life and encourage people to explore different places.

Out of this, however, some cultural institutions are rethinking their role as public spaces. For example, institutions in the US as different as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio have redesigned their facilities to create more open, permeable connections to their surroundings. New designs go beyond formal plazas to provide better access and smaller public spaces that allow more casual use. They incorporate ‘cinematic facades’ into their buildings that offer expansive views between the street and gallery and performance spaces inside.

Libraries have gone from reticent community reading rooms to mixed use, multipurpose spaces that catalyse social interaction. They are no longer just spaces to consume literature but foundries for cultural production. Throughout Australia, many have established makerspaces where people share ideas and collaborate on myriad projects.

Others approach public space as an extension of the institution. The redevelopment of the Perth Cultural Centre led to the programming of interactive exhibits alongside a diversity of other activities, which they see as creating opportunities for cultural participation rather than consumption. Some cultural institutions are becoming more integrated through urban parks.

Dallas capped a freeway with a wildly popular park to better link its arts district with surrounding areas. The North Carolina Museum of Art works with its park setting to promote active living and environmental sustainability through publicly interactive art installations.

These publically-minded moves around design and function better integrate cultural institutions into their surroundings and make them more social spaces. However, while cultural institutions have become good at providing social experiences, many struggle with cultural and political engagement, largely serving patrons rather than publics. Their programs too often support cities interested in building centre city consumption destinations rather than open public spaces. Cultural institutions and cities together need to break down the cultural precinct and explore new ways to build a broader public realm.

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Carl Grodach

Carl Grodach is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). His research focuses on the urban development impacts of arts organisations, cultural industries, and cultural policy. He is co-editor of The Politics of Urban Cultural Policy: Global Perspectives (Routledge, 2013) and co-author of Urban Revitalization: Remaking Cities in a Changing World (Routledge, 2016). His research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Community Trust, and the Government of Canada. Over the past ten years, Grodach has worked with his students to produce a diverse set of urban cultural plans and studies for community organisations and government in Australia and the US.