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Wanted: 'Guardian ad litem' for cultural facilitie

by Andrew Taylor

I spent the end of last week at a roundtable meeting, learning about and responding to the evolving work of the Cultural Infrastructure Projectteam from the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center. The research explores many facets of large-scale cultural facility projects in the United States over the past decade -- scope and scale, perceived impact on the surrounding cultural communities, and details of their process and progress in designing and building their vision.

When smart people gather around the topic of large-scale cultural facility projects, they tend to coalesce quickly on the conclusion that such projects are products of mass hysteria. They start as a passionate idea for change. They get bigger and bigger beyond reason as the planning proceeds (and there were some extraordinary numbers about how much bigger). They come to favor civic symbolism and iconic design over operating health. And they are subject to the whims and coercions of the experts who swing into town to make them real (architects, acousticians, consultants, and such).

Conversations about complex or difficult projects move quickly toward accusing the egocentric design architect, the powerful and coercive lead donor, the status-hungry board, the shopaholic resident companies or artistic teams, the career-focused chief executive -- or some combination thereof.

But the more I study and learn about large-scale civic investments like performing arts centers, museums, or the like, the more I perceive a different dynamic. It's not that everyone at the table is opportunistic and hell-bent toward their own agenda (although, that may be the case from time to time). Rather, it's that everyone at the table has a sincerely different vision for the outcome, and a different lens on what would make it successful.

Major donors often envision a bold statement for their communities that will reframe their own identity or the identity of the city they love. Resident companies and artists see a chance to stretch their artistic excellence or impact, bolstered by a community-wide funding effort. Architects believe that their design experience and expertise is more informed and nuanced than their clients' -- or they consider the work within their global portfolio rather than the local frame. Acousticians (because they are acousticians) believe that warm and enveloping sound will define the space and its success as a creative venue. Consultants bring unique expertise, but also are subject to intensive pressure not to lose their job, and also to retain a positive referral to future clients. And even the owner's representative, if there is one, may define his or her job as delivering on time, on budget, and on task -- whether or not those three goals match the future health of the building.

The problem is, even if everyone in the conversation cares deeply about a successful outcome, there's rarely anyone of power representing the most essential thing: The future resilience of the mission. In all the loud declarations and arguments about competing goals, future resilience is often a still, small voice in the corner, if it's even in the room.

In courts of law, a judge will appoint a special representative for individuals who lack the influence or capacity to represent themselves. These representatives are called guardians ad litem, and they represent children or incapacitated adults, particularly when the goals of their designated advocates (parents or guardians) are conflicted. In estate cases, a guardian ad litem may also be appointed ''when the estate's proper representatives are unable or unwilling to act.''

It strikes me that cultural facility projects demand a guardian ad litem representing the future resilience of the enterprise, to balance the noise and fury of the capital project -- even if it's a designated individual already at the table.

Yes, I know, in nonprofit projects, the governing board is the proper representative of future mission resilience. But large-scale civic projects can stretch a board's capacity and pull its focus in a thousand different ways.

The amassing evidence of this research project and others that came before confirm that beyond passion, power, capital, and expertise, successful cultural facility projects demand two essential ingredients: a clear and compelling objective, and a relentless and influential advocate for their future resilience. If boards or civic leadership teams are unable to provide the clear objective, they shouldn't advance the project. If they are unable to represent the future resilience of their mission, they should appoint someone, specifically, to do that job.