Economic Development

If You Build It...

Cities hope big arts venues will wow visitors.
by | January 2006

This has been a busy season for gaudy urban arts projects. In just the past few months, Louisville has opened a big new performing arts and educational center, while San Francisco and Minneapolis have finished rebuilding their art museums. Houston and several other cities are looking into creating sculpture gardens like the one that has been a hit in Chicago's Millennium Park. "You're trying to improve the quality of life for your residents and win some distinction for your city," says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

Denver is one of the big players in this field. It has a brand-new opera house, and its primary art museum is undergoing a major expansion. But even Denver can't compete for big-box arts development with Atlanta. In November, that city reopened both its face-lifted High Museum of Art, which had undergone a $164 million expansion, and the Georgia Aquarium, billed as the largest indoor fish tank in the world and underwritten by $200 million from a Home Depot co-founder.

The Aquarium fronts a hole in the ground that will be an enormous "World of Coca-Cola" museum next year and shares the neighborhood with the city's new children's museum. These attractions are close by Centennial Olympic Park and Atlanta's downtown, and will all be linked for easy access by a tourist bus route.

Do Atlanta and these other cities really believe they can all recreate the "Bilbao effect," landing their cities on the international tourism map as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum did in that Spanish city? Probably not. They're hoping for something seemingly more modest--attractions that make people who come to their city a little more excited about doing so.

Even though Atlanta is home to the world's busiest passenger airport and is one of the nation's five largest convention cities, it's been lacking in "wow factor," admits Lauren Jarrell, of the city's convention and visitors bureau. "It's no longer just about accessibility and great meeting facilities," Jarrell says. "People have got to want to be in your city and not just be in your convention center."

That may come as something of a shock to officials in many places who have spent billions in recent years building up convention centers and adjacent hotels. But if the museums and other new projects don't provide the expected boost to civic revenue and morale, they will at least offer one consolation to the local leadership: most of the money for them has come from private donors.

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