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Art Museum expansion is put on hold

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 6, 2008 - A year ago -- almost to the day -- the St. Louis Art Museum's Board of Commissioners announced ambitious plans for long-discussed, long-delayed expansion of the museum in Forest Park.

That was Nov. 5, 2007.

On Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2008, the museum announced that commencement of construction of a new building is on hold.

"I have to be honest," Museum Commission Board President John D. Weil said. "I am disappointed that we have to defer construction. What I am thinking about is that the World's Fair was late being built, and this (the museum expansion delay) will be a footnote" in the bigger scheme of things.

"It gives me comfort to know we have a wonderful solution (to expansion needs) and it will be successful," he continued. "The timing is less important. And we are going to make it."

In a press release sent out on Nov. 6, Museum Director Brent R. Benjamin praised the regional community and the institution's boards for their generosity and leadership.

"We've been deliberate and prudent and fortunate throughout this process," Benjamin said Friday, Nov. 7. That process included the selection of an architect, the choice of a final design and the mounting of a fund-raising campaign. "There is no question the decision to delay is frustrating, but I do think it is correct. I am confident the building is going to happen. The only question is when."

The museum mounted a four-year capital campaign to raise money for the expansion with a goal of $125 million. Although it has commitments for $120 million, it does not have all of that money in cash. A museum spokesperson said it has "about $50 million in cash."  Current economic uncertainties, along with the constriction of the credit market, led to the decision to delay construction. The Board of Commissioners will re-evaluate its decision in early 2009.

The British architect David Chipperfield designed the $125 million expansion. The site is east and south of the museum's main building, which was part of a vast Palace of Art built for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World's Fair. Part of the building was temporary, and what we have today on Art Hill was the central section of the building. It overlooks Art Hill as well as the Grand Basin of Forest Park, another a survivor of World's Fair grandeur.

The serene, neoclassical landmark museum building was designed by architect Cass Gilbert of New York, who also designed the St. Louis Public Library, the Woolworth Building in New York and the Supreme Court Building in Washington. The modernist addition to the museum is to provide vastly increased gallery space for exhibition of the museum's collection as well as traveling special exhibitions. It would also provide space for a new restaurant and increased below-grade parking.

Talk of the need for expanding the museum goes back decades and the current, more determined discussions reach back into the mid 1990s. At times, expansion plans have seemed to be jinxed. After a renovation of the East Wing of the museum and the addition of an administrative wing in the 1970s, and following a renovation of the West Wing in the 1980s and the addition of an underground storage and laboratory facility, the need to increase the size of the overall plant became more critical.

The museum's collections were increasing not only in size but also in quality, and museum services to the public were on the rise. Museums all over the country were expanding, and St. Louis felt a strong need to compete and participate in the art institution boom. Space evaluations and needs evaluations were taken and considered.

But along the way, the need for greater space for art and for increased parking for visitors met with stiff opposition from conservationists and environmentalists. They were concerned about the proliferation of institutional buildings in Forest Park with a consequent loss of green space and an increase in vehicular traffic.

In the early '90s, the museum received a lease from the City of St. Louis for 27.5 acres of parkland for expansion. A wave of opposition swept over these plans, and those opposed to them gathered enough signatures to call a referendum on the issue. The museum waged a campaign to sell the plan, but voters rejected it overwhelmingly, 39,735 to 30,342.

Following the defeat, the museum floated ideas such as moving to the county or building an addition on the old Arena property on Oakland Avenue, just south of Forest Park and Highway 64/40. The problems were further or exacerbated by a study that revealed the 1904 building was in need of a serious retrofitting against earthquakes.

Eleven years ago, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen again voted to lease land to the museum, about four acres this time, enough to accommodate a new building, with inside parking. Again, conservationists mounted a successful petition drive. But this time, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled against them.

The 1997 deal involved money. The museum offered to contribute $10 million to Forest Park for much needed improvements on Art Hill. These improvements were made, and meshed, more or less, with a gigantic Forest Park master plan implemented early in this century, to great effect.

After the turn of the century, expansion appeared to be back on track. The museum mounted a four-year capital campaign to raise money for the expansion with a goal of $125 million, which has met with success. The Board of Commissioners will reevaluate its decision to delay, "once the market stabilizes," a museum press release said.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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