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What the Folk? MoMA Releases Redesign sans American Folk Art Museum
by Max Nesterak

It’s official. The American Folk Art Museum is about to be become folklore. 

On Wednesday MoMA released its final redesign plans, which, after 6 months of “lengthy and rigorous” analysis, still do not include the 12-year-old folk-art museum that stands between the MoMA mother ship and its condominium tower to the west.

The MoMA bought the bronzed museum in 2011 when it ran into financial troubles and most expected the acquisition was in good faith to preserve a flailing but loved cultural institution. Plus, it’s only 12 years old. Tearing down such a beautiful building seems not just egregious, architecturally speaking, but also a bit ostentatious.

In the MoMA’s defense, they tried. Following a large outcry 6 months ago when the MoMA released its initial plan that scraped the folk-art museum, they hired the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to see if it they could save their neighbor. Indeed, they could. It is possible to connect the main building to the condominium tower by circumventing the folk-art museum from behind. But that would have confused the vision. If there’s one tenet of architecture, it’s you don’t confuse the vision.

Concept Sketch of MoMA's Sculpture Garden on 54th St., Courtesty of DS + R

Concept Sketch of the Lobby, Looking West, Courtesty of DS + R

In a public statement, MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry said, “The analysis that we undertook was lengthy and rigorous, and ultimately led us to the determination that creating a new building on the site of the former American Folk Art Museum is the only way to achieve a fully integrated campus."

Principal Architect of the project Elizabeth Diller even offered some heartfelt lip service in the The New York Times, saying “It’s very hard to make peace with yourself . . .to advocate for taking down a building that’s only 12 years old.” But “It was just a kind of impossible task. We really, really tried for them.” 

The problem is this: the MoMA is way too popular. It is, as Director Glenn Lowry has been quoted saying, a victim of its own success. Viewing art there feels like being at IKEA on Saturday: more a sport than a culturally gratifying experience. Its last redesign nine years ago – costing a whopping $858 million – didn’t exactly help. MoMA surpassed its projected attendance (some 600,000 over its anticipated 2.2 million visitors) while adding thousands of new items to its collection. The 2004 redesign was also not very popular. People complained about its cold façade and hectic, disorganized lobby.  In my opinion, its $25 regular admission ticket – presumably a way to thin the masses of the less zealous (and lesser endowed) – also sucks.

Ergo more. More gallery space, more public space, more community space, more performance space. In its seemingly never-ending expansion, the redesign adds a total of 100,500 square feet to the space overall, 40,000 of which will be gallery space (that’s a 30 percent increase in viewing space!). Also the entire first floor, including the sculpture garden, will be free and open to the public.


It also includes a retractable glass wall to make it more inviting and a new performance/exhibition space, or “Art Bay,” where the American Folk Art Museum used to be (it’s already labeled “Former American Folk Art Museum”).

Still the people are … sort of kind of mad about it? The announcement of the redesign was met with many incensed headlines, but the overall attempt at moral indignation was rather weak.

In his editorial titled “Friendly Fire on the Culture Front? Why the Museum of Modern Art is Making a Fatal Mistake,” Architectural Critic Paul Goldberger wrote a tame criticism of the proposal in Vanity Fair stating he understands that the folk-art museum is in the way and that they tried really hard to save it and that the MoMA needs the space, but then wondered if perhaps there could have been a way to save it. In closing, he told New York they have a “flawed architectural heart.”

Flawed, yes, but not comatose, as his headline might suggest.

The folk-art museum’s architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, also released a rather feeble protest of its demolition, having apparently reached the acceptance stage of grieving. 

They write, “Demolishing this human‐scaled, uniquely crafted building is a loss to the city of New York,” But, “as architects, we must be optimists. So we look to the future and we move on.” 

So move on we will. To look on the bright side, I see this as a progression from the (intricately designed and beloved) Bronze Age into a better epoch of retractable glass walls, multifunctional public spaces, and endless expensive expansion. 

(Image Top: American Folk Art Museum by Vulture) 


Posted by Max Nesterak on 1/10/14 | tags: REDESIGN glenn d. lowry American folk art musuem Museum of Modern Art MOMA architecture

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