Museum Building Is Booming in the United States

In a seven-year period, museums in the U.S. spent around $5 billion

Major construction: Coming to an art museum near you. Ted Soqui/Corbis

How well are U.S. museums doing? You might think the picture is a dire one—after all, preservationists and local institutions must constantly fight for dollars to keep their doors open. But when you take a step back and look at the architectural plans, cranes and construction equipment that surround facilities like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the picture changes. As Amy X. Wang reports for Quartz, museums in the United States spent around $5 billion in a seven-year period and are growing rapidly.

Wang analyzes numbers recently released by the Art Newspaper, which looked at building projects at 85 worldwide museums that were completed between 2007 and 2014. The publication converted construction budgets into U.S. dollars, adjusted for inflation and compared investments by institution. The study found that museums based in the United States spent or pledged $4.95 billion to expand their facilities over the seven-year period—outspending the combined investment of museums from the other countries.

As Julia Halperin speculates in the Art Newspaper, big building projects are status markers for museum boards and directors, which could explain patrons’ willingness to give big bucks to high-profile expansions rather than more modest infrastructure upgrades. Wang identifies other reasons museums want to grow: to attract more donor funds and to find room for their growing collections.

There’s a downside to fancy new facilities, though—museums must pay more money to keep them up and aren’t always able to retain the heightened attendance that accompanies the opening of expanded facilities. In another report, Halperin writes in the Art Newspaper that Tate Britain saw an 18 percent drop in visitors the year after opening a lavish new renovation. Meanwhile, a 2015 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of U.S. adults who visited art museums dropped from 40.8 percent in 1993 to just 32.5 percent in 2012—a decline survey respondents said was fueled by barriers like lack of time and cost.

But attendance isn't the only revenue driver: Indeed, another 2015 survey conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that only 27 percent of the money earned by art museums comes from actual art museum facilities and in-person visitors. Museums must rely on grants, private donations and endowments for the rest of their cash. Pretty buildings get donors excited to open their pocketbooks and keep the grant money flowing, too—a win-win for museums that must find ever more creative (architecturally or otherwise) ways to stay afloat.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.