Museums are a big deal and New York museums are the biggest. In 2012, American museums took in 850m visitors, more than all the big-league sporting events and theme parks combined. Most of those visitors went to MoMA if modern art was on their list.
This week, MoMA announced its new expansion. This is bad news to art and architecture critics, who have closed ranks against the new design and unfavorably compared the museum’s restless, relentless growth to a shark needing to move and a perpetual state of war.
The first problem is that MoMA will destroy the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) because the latter is in the way of connecting MoMA to the incoming condo designed by Jean Nouvel. AFAM has drawn mixed reviews (“useless” – Jerry Saltz; “majestic” -Paul Goldberger), but nobody can doubt the wastefulness of demolishing a building erected just over a decade ago.
The second is that the expansion, envisioned by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, will have too much glass. Critics are right to object to glass exhibition walls, because paintings can’t hang on glass – though sculptures might thrive. But “glass” here is metaphorical, too. The expansion sounds as if it will sacrifice intimacy and focused study, and instead invite in people-watching, distraction, and relational acrobatics.
IMAGE: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
The unspoken problem is that MoMA looks like a bully, or even a cannibal. It condemned the Folk Art Museum to death after buying its building (or bailing it out?) in 2011. And now the avant-garde and pedagogical DS+R look like its pinheaded enablers: Kissinger to Nixon, Smithers to Burns. They requested six months to review the salvability of the FAM, but determined that it had to go. Martin Filler disagrees, supporting his position with a forensic study of photos: “The top floor of the Folk Art and MoMA buildings line up almost exactly, and any incongruities on other levels could have been easily corrected by slight inclines.” Justin Davidson, more physiologically, sees it MoMA’s way: “The connective tissue between one structure and the next would have created disfiguring scars, the mechanical apparatus on top would have occluded the lovely skylights, and the idiosyncratic staircase would have to have been amputated in any case.”
IMAGE: Giles Ashford and NYRB
I join the disappointed appeal that DS+R, with MoMA, could have tried harder. If they can’t wind a new program through that building, then they look unimaginative. (Filler even proposes housing the Taliesin/Frank Lloyd Wright archive there.) But there’s no evidence for claiming that DS+R is a) negligent or b) abusive. And anyway, when it comes to patching together buildings, isn’t it possible that these practitioners might exceed in technical scrutiny the critics outside?
Jerry Saltz, our most effective critic, frets about tearing down the walls to the Sculpture Garden. Doing so will ruin that sanctuary. Martin Filler predicts “a tourist mob scene indistinguishable from Times Square.” But St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with free entry and about the same frequency of visitors, seems okay. Sure, it is bigger, but there are more Catholics, too. Saltz also worries that the new design will “create havoc” on West 53rd Street. “People carrying synthetic coffee drinks will stand there gawking at people who are trying to focus on the art inside this box.” (This, you call havoc?) But will performances in the Gray Box and Art Bay (“glass squash courts” – Saltz (ha!)) really be more compelling to watch than one’s own Instagram feed? And how about that Art Bay?
+”The “Art Bay” is a triple height, multipurpose gallery with an operable glass wall that opens to the street.”
+”Fitted out with a technical ceiling and a floor lift that can subdivide the space into two levels, the Art Bay can be used for exhibitions and performances, as well as spontaneous events, all free to the public.”
-Floor lift? That sounds really cool!
IMAGE: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
What doesn’t sound cool is the possibility that MoMA’s new performance spaces will house spectacles – staring contests, rain rooms, timed entries – to draw bigger and bigger crowds. After all, MoMA’s attendance still lags behind its NYC siblings, such as the Met, with its crowds of six million, while the Whitney has fish in a barrel over at the High Line. If putting Tilda Swinton in a glass box succeeded in winning hearts and minds, then bigger glass boxes seem expedient. But What’s in the Box? “It’s all the same flimflam: flexible spaces to accommodate to-be-named programming, the logic of real estate developers hiding behind the magical thinking of those who claim cultural foresight,” writes Michael Kimmelman.
I’m not an expert, but because the plans I’ve seen are sketchy, I’m saving my scorn for definitive plans, or even for the actual site experience itself. DS+R needs to convince MoMA lovers that its design will alleviate congestion while adding viable exhibition space. MoMA needs to convince us that it will fill its new squash courts with rigorous, inspiring activity.
Whether the new site will justify the wasteful destruction of the AFAM building is a good question. A better question is why we trust the people behind the Taniguchi transformation with yet another transformation. The Taniguchi reconstruction cost almost a billion dollars and its failures were immediately evident: not enough space for the art. “All bemoan MoMA’s lack of space for the pre-1980 permanent collection,” says Jerry Saltz, who has been right about this since the Taniguchi overhaul. (The new expansion doesn’t have a budget.) And now MoMA is chronically crowded. Who let that happen?
And why do they get another shot?