Book Review: American Art Museum Architecture

American Art Museum Architecture: Documents and Design by Eric M. Wolf
W. W. Norton, 2010
Hardcover, 272 pages

When I received this book "exploring the intersections of art, architecture, and design, at both renowned institutions and cutting-edge contemporary collections," I first thought it was simply a coffee table book. The paper size (11x10.4") is quite large, numerous photographs and other illustrations are included, and even the font size is fairly large (not bordering on the "large type" category, though). But delving into the text on museums in New York City (Frick, Whitney, MoMA), Chicago (Art Institute), Houston (Menil) and Sante Fe, New Mexico (Georgia O'Keefe), it's apparent that the book is a serious study of how these institutions have created buildings over time for their singular collections and approaches to presenting art.

Eric M. Wolf is Head Librarian at the Menil Collection, and he is therefore in an ideal position to study Renzo Piano's well known 1987 building -- and later Cy Twombly Gallery -- in relation to John and Dominique De Menil, their art collection, and the Texas context. His position no doubt made compiling the documents and quotes that depict the history of the institution somewhat easy (not so, see comment at right), but that thoroughness appears in all of the six case studies. In all cases Wolf looks at the shaping of the institution's focus (type of art, type of collection, people involved, etc.), at the important steps leading to the design and construction of their homes for art, and at the architecture's relationship to the art and client.

In a sense the book can be seen as a guide for designing an art museum, helpful for both the architect and the client in seeing primarily the successes in previous undertakings. This also applies to institutions expanding their facilities, as many are undertaking these days, since each case study in the book includes expansions or other means of dealing with growth. Of course the book's appeal is not limited to this quite narrow audience, since Wolf's text is very scholarly yet easily understandable; he is not esoteric in his prose. His articulation of the important considerations and events for each institution is clear and well integrated into the greater narrative for each museum. The cover made me wish for a case study devoted to the Wexner Center by Peter Eisenman, yet it and other institutions focused on contemporary art (New Museum, DIA, ICA) are treated in a final chapter on that area of emphasis. These museums do not have the case studies' decades of history to mine, but their inclusion is appreciated. It is a fitting end to an insightful book on six American art museums, their architecture, and their clients.