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Why cities should stop building museums and focus on festivals

May 25, 2016

Last year the Institute of Museum and Library Services offered a catchy statistic: the United States has more museums than all the Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.

It’s easy to understand why cities will leap at the opportunity to invest in new structures: “Starchitect”-designed buildings, from the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum to Brooklyn’s undulating Barclays Center, could add an iconic image to the cityscape and garner positive media buzz.

However, such massive public investments in permanent structures (what I’ve dubbed “concrete culture”) are bad deals and bad policy for urban economic development. Once the hoopla fades, cities can be saddled with millions in debt and mixed results. Take, for example, Charlotte’s NASCAR museum. Built in 2010 at a cost of US$160 million, the facility has not met attendance projections and, according to the Charlotte Observer, is losing $1 million a year.

Given the economic costs and risks, why do museums, stadiums and other “concrete culture” receive such a privileged place in urban development? After spending the past 10 years conducting research on the topic, I’ve found that this privilege should end; as an alternative, cities should champion music festivals as a cheaper, adaptable way to bolster urban communities.

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