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Move On, MoMA

Looking Beyond the American Folk Art Museum

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The controversy surrounding the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA’s) proposed expansion and the future of a neighboring building, the former American Folk Art Museum, has not ended despite MoMA’s decision to move ahead with its plans. Regardless of what side of the controversy you follow, the Folk Art Museum building is being demolished, with its cherished façade of copper and bronze saved from a scrap yard. Now this small plot of land on West 53rd Street is facing preparations for a greater, more powerful behemoth. At A Conversation on the Museum of Modern Art’s Plan for Expansion held in January, Glenn Lowry, Director of MoMA, was confident of the museum’s decision to demolish the Folk Art Museum. The event included a panel discussion and presentations by both MoMA and the architects for the proposed expansion, Diller Scofidio + Refro (DS+R). It was less a debate over the Folk Art Museum’s fate and more about shining light into the process that ultimately led to MoMA’s decision. Elizabeth Diller of DS+R held her position firmly with an overview of the steps taken to determine that the Folk Art Museum could not be saved. Most in attendance did not disagree with Ms. Diller, but several audience members commented that DS+R was not asked the right questions by MoMA. The issue is not could or should the Folk Art Museum be saved, but if a broader expansion at MoMA’s current site will provide for its future needs.

The issue is not about the Folk Art Museum at all, but what will follow after its demolition. Right now, MoMA has not fully convinced the public (or possibly itself) that this expansion will solve its needs. How to handle growing capacity of art content and visitors, and the circulation of people through its numerous galleries, are needs that were previously identified when MoMA renovated and expanded its facilities in the early 2000s.

That endeavor, and the accompanying redefinition of MoMA’s outreach, was unveiled in 2004 with mixed results. The new museum was twice the size of the former space and it changed visitors’ experiences with its larger lobby and reconfigured galleries. The contemporary design by Yoshio Taniguchi was heralded by many, but was soon found to be difficult to use. Increasing visitor numbers and blockbuster exhibitions resulted in uncontrollable crowds. Ada Louise Huxtable, architectural critic for the Wall Street Journal at the time, said in her review of Taniguchi’s addition that “circulation and the handling of crowds seem to be the point of this design as much as its visual drama.” More simply that “circulation trumps everything.” Huxtable was on point, however successful or unsuccessful one considers the design. MoMA attempted to solve a foreseeable issue, a growing number of visitors, and what it got was an $858 million gamble that apparently is not working.

Does this scenario sound familiar? This is the same design process underway with DS+R. During the Conversation on the Folk Art Museum, Ms. Diller defended the outcome of DS+R’s approach to MoMA’s current problems. DS+R was asked to solve the problems of capacity and circulation and it presented solutions. As a result, they determined the Folk Art Museum could not be saved. But DS+R is not the one at fault in this controversy. Their process is sound and no one seems to disagree with their solutions to the problems posed. MoMA still does not know what is the real problem they are facing and how to ask DS+R to solve it.

Circulation is a current problem, but will another expansion that sacrifices the Folk Art Museum be a solution? There is a large possibility that it will not be a solution. The real problem may be that MoMA has outgrown its current location in Midtown Manhattan.

Mr. Lowry stated that the question of whether to remain in Midtown was a critical decision-making moment during the development of the Taniguchi addition. MoMA decided to stay in Midtown as one central institution as opposed to several smaller ones spread across the city. This was a bold and resolute decision at the time, but may turn out to be the wrong one. MoMA should reconsider whether the current Midtown location is beneficial to their long-term goals. Twelve years from now, the people of New York City should not have to have another, similar discussion with the museum.

MoMA has possibilities. If MoMA decided to relocate, it could find a location large and open enough to accommodate more visitors, better pedestrian flow, and optimal gallery experience. To find a site large enough in New York City would be difficult, but MoMA could get creative. An example is 5Pointz in Queens. If it were still available, that site would have been a stellar option and it would have been in close proximity to PS1, another MoMA property. MoMA not only would save one architectural gem, but it would also save another locally cherished art haven. If finding a large available site is too difficult, or expensive, MoMA could move in the direction of separate and smaller locations. MoMA already has a Midtown location and PS1 in Queens, so adding other locations in Brooklyn or the Bronx could help disseminate and make accessible its growing art collections. MoMA could become more like the Smithsonian Institution, a spectacular set of museums throughout the Washington, D.C. Area and even two in New York City. The Smithsonian has no trouble maintaining its collections and attracting visitors to its museums. If MoMA physically spread throughout New York City’s boroughs, it could open its doors to more visitors, diversify its collections, and strengthen its identity as a celebrated city institution.

The controversy of the Folk Art Museum’s demolition is exposing a greater flaw within MoMA’s leadership. The flaw is a lack of long-term planning or a strong vision for future growth. No one doubts that MoMA’s collections are expanding exponentially and visitors will continue to flock to the popular museum. This is not expected to change. MoMA should be challenged to develop a strategic master plan that outlines what their future stages of growth may entail.

For now, there will continue to be a lingering uncertainty with the expansion plans. If MoMA were to move to another location, it would be considered a gamble. MoMA’s current expansion plans are also a gamble. The Folk Art Museum has turned out to be the ante and the public checks. So MoMA, what’s your move?

posted by Kenneth Miraski