Museums Got Supersized.

Something important has happened to scale. Boundaries, limits, and walls of any kind create not comfort or satisfaction but a kind of Jack-on-the-bean-stalk impatience. In many parts of our society, the pressure to expand, increase, and enlarge seems relentless. The art world is no exception. With the opening of its new building in November—the most eagerly anticipated event in that universe this year—the Museum of Modern Art has become a significant part of this “ever larger, ever more” impulse. Despite its encyclopedic collections and regular expansions, MoMA, traditionally, never seemed to rise above its walls. Now it joins the giants in a city of giants.

The Metropolitan dreams of eating Central Park. The Guggenheim leapfrogs around the world, building new Guggenheims. Even the bedeviled Whitney has finally settled upon expansion plans. The impulse to get big is not, of course, just an American phenomenon. The Tate Modern in London, which occupies a former power station on the Thames, is a postmodern mastodon. Art galleries, too, continue to swell in size. Some could almost be public institutions. The Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea has the scale of a contemporary-art museum in a mid-size city—and imparts a kind of grandiose museum luster to anything it exhibits.

Contemporary art itself has been jumping over the walls for years. Artists today work with installations, film and video, sculpted sound, and the Internet. Even conventional paintings and sculpture are often very large. The spaces being built for contemporary art—such as those at MoMA and the Tate Modern—are scaled for huge works. The new contemporary galleries at MoMA are elephantine; the same is true of the special-exhibition space on the top floor. Of course, these spaces can be adjusted to suit smaller work, but there can be no doubt what curators anticipate and, finally, most respect. Museums are now built with Richard Serra in mind, a sculptor whose massive, weighty forms demand a vast arena.

The great wall-less spaces can be very beautiful. But their scale, and the loss of measure that sometimes results, also creates a strangely groundless atmosphere. The uproar about the new $20 admission to MoMA was about more than money. The fee symbolized a widespread fear that the museum was turning into a cathedral intended for special occasions—that, in short, MoMA would cease being an intimate, easily visited place that was a regular part of the city’s life.

Once upon a time, these august institutions were young, nimble, and sometimes even rebellious. It’s natural that they enlarged with age and reflected their society’s quest for the ever-bigger. But nothing stands still in Western culture. Perhaps, in the new century, a David will arise to challenge the Goliaths.

Museums Got Supersized.