Elevating art in Louisville: Museum Plaza has big goals for art in Louisville — and beyond

Imagine Louisville hosting work by Cristo and Jeanne-Claude, the artistic duo who mounted The Gates last year, filling New York’s Central Park with large, billowing orange canopies. Or our city chosen as the site for a powerful and socially ambitious artwork such as Kyzysztof Wodiczko’s “Hiroshima Projection.” In 1999, 4,000 people watched Wodiczko’s moving video, which included commentary from survivors and their children projected on the A-bomb Dome, the building on the site where an atomic bomb exploded in 1945.

Yes, the proposed Museum Plaza project is conjuring bold dreams among Louisville curators and artists. They imagine the building’s museum accommodating all size and scope of contemporary art, easily holding a broad range of work in all media, from painting to large-scale installations that use sculpture, light and video projections. They foresee performance art, like that of Marina Abramovic, who has performed pieces in which she has frozen her body on ice, cut herself and walked across the Great Wall of China. They imagine all of this work engaging citizens from all parts of the Metro, bringing them together to think about and discuss contemporary life, and extending those discussions further with national and international audiences.

Julien Robson, curator of contemporary art at The Speed Museum, thinks contemporary art will eventually extend beyond Museum Plaza’s walls and doors onto the surrounding urban landscape, much like the projects mounted by Cristo and Jeanne-Claude, and Wodiczko.

“(Hiroshima Projection”) was something that was uplifting and transforming,” Robson said. “I think the way that he works has this great effect upon communities.”

Mostly Robson imagines Museum Plaza creating solo and thematic exhibitions or developing exhibitions in collaboration with other major art institutions around the world, still a high aim.

“In my experience, people like an exciting challenge, rather than being spoon-fed,” he said. “And there is nothing more exciting than engaging with and trying to make sense of the contemporary world. Who better to help us than contemporary artists who continually scratch away at our complacency?”

Chuck Swanson, an artist and co-owner of two Louisville galleries, sees Museum Plaza presenting contemporary painting — “everything from the nearly monochromatic canvases of Joseph Marioni to Ann Craven’s syrupy images of birds and foliage,” he said. He also envisions theatrical installations there.
All of that will cause people to view Louisville differently. “So, of course, we will view ourselves differently too,” he said.

These sentiments extend to architects. Rick Kremer, president of Louis & Henry Group Architects, believes Louisville “needs to be shaken up a bit” to overcome a self-image of itself as a small town with modest ambitions. “I think it will give us a great shot in the arm for our own self-belief and self-image,” he said. “I think the message it sends to the outside world is great, but I think that the message it will send to Louisvillians is even stronger.”

The question remains whether Louisvillians will heed the call; historically, the city has been slow to embrace change, fundamentally conservative and suspicious of things radically new and different.

Driving the dream
Last month the members of Museum Plaza’s development team — Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, Steve Poe and Craig Greenberg — unveiled the designs of the building by architect Joshua Prince-Ramus and other architects in the New York branch of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, seven months after announcing their intentions to build it.

The task they set before OMA was challenging: design a building to fit an oddly sized site on a 100-year floodplain, hard against an interstate highway and a collection of power lines close to the west, while gracefully connecting itself with the Belvedere, the waterfront and Main Street’s historical buildings. It also had to efficiently meet the needs of businesses, homeowners, a university and an art museum.

On a cold and gray Saturday in early February, the exhibition of the plans for Museum Plaza opened at 609 W. Main St. in the first of a trio of private showings before the project was revealed to the public. After days of busily setting up a sprawling multimedia display to depict the Museum Plaza project, architect Prince-Ramus was feeling the effects of a hectic stretch. He’d only slept six hours over the previous two nights, and just a couple hours earlier, he’d attended a U of L basketball game. His eyes were bloodshot, but he laughed easily as his young son ran circles around him, and his energy level was still high as he answered a question about what makes the unconventional project so special.

Museum Plaza — the $380 million, 61-story mixed use skyscraper planned at Seventh and Main streets downtown — is “defined in a different way than a conventional design project,” he said, speaking over pulsating techno music from a demo film playing nearby. Typically, he said, a client has a pot of money and decisions are made in relation to those numbers. But the Louisville group behind Museum Plaza requested something counterintuitive of OMA, the noted architectural firm founded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Because of its supremely ambitious scope — Museum Plaza promises to be the nothing less than the “museum of the future,” after all — the project had to be ratcheted up to create the proper economies of scale for each of the components: condos, townhouses and retail, plus a university fine arts program and a museum of contemporary art.

“Typically with projects, a client has a maximum budget and you’re just trying to give them the most for that budget,” he said. “This project had the aim of providing a cultural institution, the museum as well as the University of Louisville fine arts program. And because it started with that it almost worked in reverse.”

The team that put together the Museum Plaza project rented the shotgun space on West Main to set up an extensive array of illustrations, diagrams, written explanations and videos showing interviews with the developers and city leaders. The exhibition is designed to help the developers pitch the idea to the community. (It’s open Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m. and 4-7 p.m.; and Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. It will be up for the next two months.)

The exhibition has three major displays. The first is the final small-scale model of the building sandwiched between a curving white strip representing a miniature I-64 along the riverfront and the white boxes denoting West Main Street‘s historic buildings. The second, a table crammed with dozens of models depicting the building’s evolution, shows how the architects shaped the building and its components into final form. The third is a 3-D version of the building from floor to ceiling, with a large protruding box bursting out of the middle, its interior replete with small human figures strolling in what will be a large space shared by a contemporary museum and the University of Louisville’s proposed master of fine arts program. Under that box, which the architects call the “island,” are three tall blocks, acting as a sort of tripod and supporting this art component. And then there’s the diagonal elevator that extends to Main Street. On top are two soaring towers and one square box, dedicated to condominiums and offices.

Near the rear of the exhibition is a video, on a huge screen encased with black curtains. It flashes images of Museum Plaza superimposed onto the Louisville skyline, and views of the project from many angles, from the Main Street sidewalk to the Indiana shoreline. The video’s colorful, hyper-speed visual style recalls the cityscapes in Godrey Reggio’s 1983 film “Koyaanisqatsi,” but contrary to that film’s themes about life in an increasingly chaotic world (“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian term for “life out of balance”), Museum Plaza is meant to push back against that chaos by establishing a whole range of life in a bold architectural environment in the central business district.

Prince-Ramus, Koolhaas’ partner in OMA who runs the firm’s New York City office, said it all come together through a collaborative process that embraces a “hyper-rational” focusing on problem-solving. The problem: how to make a building to accommodate homes, offices, stores, a museum and a university art program in an efficient way without great mass. His team of architects considered the various uses of the building and organized them into separate segments, then arranged them to allow for the best views for people looking in and those looking out. Moreover, they centered them around the contemporary art museum.

Art at center stage, 24/7
The museum is the project’s nexus, and the building is designed so that nearly everyone entering and leaving passes through it. Traditional ground-level entries, Prince-Ramus said, would have diluted the focus on art.

That rationale reflects the notion of Museum Plaza as the wave of the future. Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, worked with OMA to examine that organization’s needs well into the 21st century. He thinks OMA is a great choice for the Louisville project.

If anyone can see what the world will look like in 2050, Anderson asserts, it’s Koolhaas and Prince-Ramus. He calls them “the most visionary people working in the development of public space,” because when they think about projects, they carefully consider human behavior, market economies and changes in how cities and outlying urban areas interact.

“They’re a think tank,” Anderson said, “and I think most architectural firms fall short of that, but OMA has always been an amazing think thank.”
It’s plausible to believe the contemporary museum would drastically elevate the role of visual arts in Louisville, both for the traveling exhibitions it would bring and for the challenges and possibilities it would create for local artists. The developers talk about the infusion of youth and energy that would come with students working on projects day and night. That beehive effect, Steve Wilson said, will drive commerce in the building and economic development on West Main Street.

The idea for Museum Plaza began taking shape as the team toured other museums, asking themselves, Wilson said,  “What should a contemporary art museum be in 2050?”

In August, after development team members announced their intentions to build Museum Plaza at an estimated cost of $70 million, they consulted with museum experts around the world and took several tours of museums and notable mixed-use architectural projects in the United States and Europe. They considered the kunsthalle, a type of contemporary museum that originated in Germany; a kunsthalle has no permanent collection and hosts touring exhibitions, much like Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center. And they examined the MASS MoCa museum in western Massachusetts, with its array of visual and performance art programs and goal of fostering community revitalization.

They considered several modern developments, from Frank Gehry’s widely lauded Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, which became a catalyst for the construction of other cultural institutions in that port city, to mixed-use buildings, including the Time Warner Center at New York’s Columbus Circle.

They were especially taken with Euralille — OMA’s largest completed urban planning project to date — in Lille, France. Euralille includes a train station, hotel, offices, shopping mall and restaurants, and its focal point, a building called Congrexpo, houses exhibition space, a concert hall and meeting facilities.

Poe said the team is “trying to pull the best of all worlds and give us a museum that has all kinds of abilities that museums in most cities don’t have.” For example, the museum space will have the flexibility to host several exhibits in separate areas or a single large show by linking the gallery space. The developers also plan for the museum to have a sophisticated security system and high-tech equipment to control the humidity and temperature in the museum.

Wilson declined to be specific about what to expect in the museum, but said Prince-Ramus is discussing space planning and other details with other museum directors. Wilson said a worldwide search will be conducted for a director, which should be concluded within two years.

Anderson, the former Whitney director, is intrigued by the Louisville project, but he isn’t sold on the idea of going without a permanent collection. He noted that the New Museum in New York began under the kunsthalle model, but eventually began acquiring a collection. Many museum-planning experts question whether the CAC can flourish without a collection of consequence.

“I think it’s great that there’s a roll of the dice on this project,” Anderson said. “It’s an exciting team to put it together.” But he added that it “will have enduring questions of stewardship in the far future without the commitment to collecting.”

He also cautions against banking on the “Bilbao Effect,” noting that the government there made a huge investment in the city. “That’s an unusual European mindset that certainly in America doesn’t exist,” he said. “We can’t even get the federal government to pay more than a few dimes a year for each of us in taxes for the arts, so I’m very conscious about assuming that what happens in a port city in Spain is going to be repeated anywhere in the U.S.”
Still, he’s optimistic about Museum Plaza, calling it “today’s flag in the ground that could turn into something else.”

How it came together
Museum Plaza’s design and scope are inextricably linked to its planned site. In 1999, Vencor (now Kindred Healthcare) abandoned plans for a $60 million, I.M. Pei-designed headquarters, when it filed for bankruptcy. The property was auctioned in 2001. Wilson and Brown bid on it but lost out to the city, which paid $4.4 million and then began seeking a distinctive development for the site. Poe did not know Wilson and Brown at the time; he was part of a group that proposed an office building, while Wilson and Brown were in a group that proposed an art museum. None of it went forward.

By that time, the Speed Museum was actively considering an expansion. Speed director Peter Morrin said Wilson and Brown, who were then on the museum’s board of governors, worked with David Mohney, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, to help develop a museum expansion project. In 2001-2002, their Southerland Foundation funded, and Mohney organized, five tours for members of an advisory committee to see more than 90 works of architecture and 50 museums in 15 U. S. and European cities. Mohney said the group looked at contemporary ideas about architecture and new ways of expressing museum work through architecture, including new kinds of exhibition space, and at how museums operated and interacted with the communities around them.

That effort also involved bringing notable architects (Daniel Libeskind, Michael Manfredi, Thomas Mayne, James Stewart Polshek and Marion Weiss) to Louisville for lectures and symposia meant to encourage community discussion about architecture. Morrin said that process drove Wilson’s understanding of what’s possible in Louisville.

“Steve, inspired by the trips, determined that there was an opportunity for a real signature building,” he said.
In exploring expansion, the Speed had considered a satellite branch downtown, where it looked at 18 sites. But by mid-2005, Morrin said, it was clear that it would be less expensive to expand at its current location ($160 million to $180 million to move compared to  $110 million).

Meanwhile, in February 2005, Wilson, Brown, Poe and Greenberg had a private “get-to-know-you” lunch at Blu in the downtown Marriott, which Poe was instrumental in developing. Greenberg, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, arranged the meeting, because, he said, he had worked with all three on various projects and understood each of their goals and ambitions.

After the Speed announced it would expand at its current site, Poe, Wilson and Brown announced the Museum Plaza project and the hiring of OMA to design it.

Paying for it
As of today, Museum Plaza’s development team has a lot of work ahead — agreements to be made and funds to be guaranteed  — before their dreams can come true. The team is now working to complete its financing plan, the majority of which will come from private investment capital. It expects the city to donate the land to the project.

While the team members are putting up a “substantial amount” of their own money to build Museum Plaza, they declined to cite figures. They have asked the state and the city to support the project by creating a tax increment financing, or TIF, district that encompasses businesses within the building’s footprint, including those in the building’s connected structures on Main Street and the area bordered by Washington Street to the south, I-64 to the north, the Ali Center to the east and Ninth Street to the west. This TIF is the linchpin of the developers’ financial plan, Greenberg said. If the city and state approve it, 80 percent of local income, property and sales taxes generated on the site will be captured by local government to offset the site’s public infrastructure costs. Those costs include realigning Seventh Street to go under the public plaza, and constructing the plaza, the ground-level stretch of land that will extend from the Ali Center westward past the Museum Plaza building and over a parking garage. Greenberg said the development team hopes this agreement with the city and state to be completed by late May. (The agreement would only include the Museum Plaza footprint and is not part of any proposal for a TIF that will help finance an arena.)

The developers’ plan also includes revenues from the sale and leasing of property in the building. Team members said they analyzed local residential market studies, local and national hotel industry reports, and local commercial real estate occupancy and rate reports to determine potential revenues, and that the data indicated there are enough potential tenants and local and out-of-town visitors to support the Museum Plaza. Greenburg said Museum Plaza will help bring in even more visitors to West Main Street and the surrounding cultural attractions, including the Ali Center, the Frazier Arms Museum, the Louisville Science Center and Slugger Museum. They even estimate that 100,500 people will go through Museum Plaza each day after it opens.

The team continually reviewed these numbers and their projections between last summer’s announcement of the project and last month’s unveiling of the design, when the project cost increased more than five-fold, as the developers and OMA created more revenue-generating space to offset Museum Plaza’s significant public and non-revenue generating components.
That, as Prince-Ramus said, was totally new to his team.

“We’re used to, ‘This is your money. This is your site. This is the program we want and we want to get the most of it that we can,’” he said. “And this one was quite different. There were moments where instead of the client saying, ‘You need to cut back,’ they would actually say; ‘I need more, because I need more efficiency in order to actually afford something.’”

That thinking, matched by anticipation of increased demand for downtown housing and “Class A” office space, makes sense to Phil Scherer, another Louisville developer and president of Commercial Kentucky Inc. Commercial real estate brokerage firms currently put office vacancy rates for high-end office space downtown near 11 percent, and Scherer thinks that if business growth continues, it could fall as low as 6 percent by the building’s 2010 opening. “When that vacancy rate drops to something in the neighborhood of 5 to 6 percent, there’s a possibility that there may not be contiguous blocks of space of 50,000 square feet or larger,” he said. The situation makes Museum Plaza a place that can offer large spaces to businesses. “And because of the uniqueness of the design of the building and that fact that it’s a great combination of art and architecture, I think that it’s likely to attract the attention of corporations that perhaps are considering relocation and looking at various cities.”

The mixed-use nature of Museum Plaza is not only a business proposition; it reflects how people live today, Mohney said. “They want to combine the various aspects together. They don’t want to segregate living in one place, working in another, recreating in another. It really is trying to put all these pieces in closer proximity.”

Greenberg, Poe and Wilson speak frequently about their commitment to the project and making sure it gets built. “From our first days working on this project, we have been very careful to ensure the entire project is financially viable,” Greenberg said.

The team touts its experience in developing other large projects in Louisville. Poe, who left the real estate development firm Icon Properties last year to start his own Poe Companies, has spearheaded many suburban and several downtown developments, including the $115 Louisville Marriott Downtown. Greenberg manages Frost Brown Todd’s Commonwealth Management Services LLC, a subsidiary that helps groups obtain New Markets Tax Credit allocations for community-development projects. (The federal government enacted the New Markets Tax Credit legislation in 2000 to generate private sector investment in low-income communities nationwide.) Brown, whose family controls the Brown-Forman Corp., and Wilson, her husband, have been involved in the visual arts community for many years and are now getting ready to open their West Main Street boutique hotel, 21C, to the public in April. (It was funded in part by $2.1 million through the federal New Markets tax credit program and features contemporary art by living artists.)

Greenberg had worked with Brown and Wilson as their attorney since 2001 and had gotten to know Poe when Poe came to him for information about the tax credit program.

The U of L connection
The development team also needs to establish how the University of Louisville’s proposed master of fine arts program will figure into the plan. (Poe has been on the university’s board of trustees since June 2004.) Right now, the team is waiting for the university to establish more details about the program before the two can begin setting costs and determining funding sources. The developers and university officials declined to speak about costs while proposals are still in the formative stages.

James Grubola, an artist and chair of U of L’s fine arts department, learned about Museum Plaza in June, and he and other university officials met with the development team three times to discuss the university’s needs and how it can fit into the project. So far, the department has requested space for a gallery, its curatorial studies program, faculty studios, individual graduate student space and community studios, a hot shop for glass artists and a graphic design studio, to fit in 40,000 square feet.

While establishing an MFA program had been a goal of the department since 1974, space limitations and the lack of scholarships for students made fine arts faculty reluctant to support it, Grubola said. Housing the program downtown would solve the space issue.

Last year the department began working on its proposal document for the MFA degree. It is now refining the budget sections with the College of Arts & Sciences, which must approve the final draft. Then the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees must approve it before it goes to the Council on Postsecondary Education in Frankfort. Grubola said the process will likely take another six months.

U of L’s art program is already the largest and most comprehensive in the state, he said, and the only degree the department doesn’t offer is the MFA. The desire to create an MFA program has grown after a decade of significant growth in the university’s undergraduate visual arts program, which became clear in 2000 when it counted more than 600 students majoring in fine arts. At that point, U of L adopted a selective admissions process, which improved the quality of the program by admitting better-prepared students and limiting enrollment to fine arts majors. Since then, the department also has expanded into new areas, including adding a concentration in glass, which will grow with the university’s recently announced plans for Studio Center. It will have a hot shop, glass studios, sculpture studios and galleries and be built in 12,000 square feet of the first floor on a city parking garage at First and Main streets.

At the press conference to announce that arrangement, Grubola said the space is “where theory, practice, the artists and the public intersect,” a concept shared with the idea behind an MFA program at Museum Plaza.

Museum Plaza would help further several of the university’s goals: raise the national and international profile of the proposed MFA program, accommodate space needs and create a direct link with the community.

“With the connections there are between the arts and quality of life issues in the city, and the economic development factors related to a vibrant city arts scene, it’s a logical step that the University of Louisville should have the degree program which trains the next generation of visual artists and have it located in the heart of the city — in downtown,” Grubola said. “It’s not just a matter of educating our students, but an opportunity to educate the public.”

During his tenure at the Whitney, Anderson led a collaboration between the museum and a new master’s program in modern art and curatorial studies at Columbia University. He likes that idea here, as well.

“It’s a healthy sign because so much of the investment that municipalities around the country are making in the arts is a calculated commercial bet,” he said. “But the more these endeavors can be connected with an educational paradigm, the better. It presumes a kind of longevity to a relationship, it presumes the vitality of the imaginative, younger people coming into exposure to great objects, to great ideas, and it isn’t predicated on the turnstile, a fatal bet in a lot of arts organizations today.”

Swanson thinks an MFA program at Museum Plaza could grow Louisville’s creative young community. “Statistics show that a fair number of former students will stay around if they feel welcome and if the community has art, music, parks, restaurants and so on,” he said. “That creates a culture of opportunity, and good things happen.”

Getting to the future
Establishing a contemporary museum in Louisville would put it in the same league as cities like Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, which have museums with vast inventories like The Speed along with institutions for contemporary art. Having both in a city often means one complements the other.
The development team wants to partner with The Speed to regularly exhibit contemporary art from The Speed’s collection (which it does not have the space to display) and collaborate on programming and curatorial efforts.

Wilson is a member of The Speed’s board of governors and Brown is a former member. Speed director Morrin said he wants the same and believes having both institutions in town creates a larger draw for tourists and provides the community with the long view of art history, from the ancient to today’s artwork. He, Robson and several artists echoed the conviction that Museum Plaza, alongside other visual art venues in town, could cultivate more public interest in contemporary art, more collectors and more support for regional artists.

Naturally, interested parties hope it coaxes news levels of work from the Louisville art community. Swanson believes the museum will establish a pattern and turn Louisville into an art center, by bringing internationally known artists and their work here and by inspiring and helping develop local artists.

“I think it will give Louisville artists a higher bar to shoot for and a higher profile, nationally and even internationally,” he said. “The question will be whether there’s a chance for Louisville artists to show within that complex, and I think there will be.”

There is excitement in John Begley’s voice when he talks about Museum Plaza. Begley is an artist and has been involved in bringing art to the public in Louisville since 1983, when he came to town to head the Art Center Association, which became the Louisville Visual Art Association. He now heads U of L’s curatorial studies program and the Hite Art Institute Galleries.
“It looks like the stars are lining up,” he said. “For so long, Louisville has been known as a performance arts town, and now the leaders are interested (in the visual arts).”

Others say Museum Plaza’s success also depends on creating and sustaining a dialogue about contemporary art and its meaning in contemporary life with the local, national and international communities during the building’s construction process and long after Museum Plaza’s opening.

Charles Desmarais was the director of Cincinnati’s CAC as it went through the planning process and then the opening of its new building, designed by Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid. He’s now deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum.

“To make it successful, they would want to find a lot of ways to link up with the community,” Desmarais said. “And it sounds to me, for example, by including a number of different organizations in different kinds of uses in their project, that they are trying to make those linkages.”

To have staying power, Morrin said, those connections should help strengthen public knowledge and appreciation of visual art in Louisville. It could be a tall order.

“We do not live in a community in which there is an assumption of value for art museums,” he said. “Or to be more specific, there’s not an assumption of relevancy for everybody in the community.” The project’s success also depends on Louisville’s economy, he said, and what the community and its leaders value. “A lot depends upon whether or not Louisville makes life happy for human beings on the street or cars and trucks and carbon monoxide, which we have a tendency to do.”