BY Jason Farago in Opinion | 17 JAN 14

Learning to Live With MoMA

‘MoMA is simply a fact of life, an epiphenomenon of a larger economic and social miscarriage reflected too in the glitzy towers that ring the museum’

BY Jason Farago in Opinion | 17 JAN 14

It’s been a while, here in New York, since we’ve had an urban debacle as angry and as general as the one generated last week by the latest plans for the Museum of Modern Art. Take the disappointment that accompanied the skinning of Edward Durell Stone’s ‘Lollipop Building’ at Columbus Circle last decade, add confusion about the vicissitudes of contemporary art in a moment of financial boom and populist gestures, and stir in the ire at the city’s plutocracy that drove last November’s landslide election of Mayor Bill de Blasio after 12 years under the thumb of Michael Bloomberg. It’s a worrying brew, and that’s before you add in the most loudly bewailed ingredient: the coming destruction of the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, which sits between the current MoMA site and the mammoth 82-story Jean Nouvel tower soon to rise near Sixth Avenue, in which the museum will have a few new galleries.

Concept sketch for The Museum of Modern Art. View from 53rd Street. © 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The new designs, by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, are surprisingly thin. They are not ‘grand’ and ‘ambitious,’ as the New York Times had it, but wishy-washy and incremental. The one clear improvement of the DS+R plan is the opening up of the West 54th Street side of the museum (the back side, currently), ripping down Yoshio Taniguchi’s gray baffles. That will create a new public entrance into the sculpture garden, which excites me, even if I worry about the probable High Line-ization of a currently peaceful space. Other than that, though, the plan is a grim rundown. On the site of the former American Folk Art Museum, which abuts MoMA’s current West 53rd Street entrance, will stand a pair of glass boxes: a three-story ‘art bay,’ which will open onto the street, and a slick ‘gray box’ above it that can function as both gallery and theatre. Both look like Chelsea gallery imports to Midtown, and both are inane, solving for problems MoMA does not have while ignoring the ones it does. (The museum has been notably vague on just what it wants to do with these behemoth chambers. The claim is ‘contemporary art and performance,’ and MoMA’s growing attention to performance has been welcome, even if for every innovator like Boris Charmatz there seems to be a Fischerspooner, who performed there in 2009, long after their early 2000s star had waned. Wheezes like Random International’s ‘Rain Room,’ a frivolous but wildly popular summer confection, also seem likely.) A new glass-fronted gallery on the second floor, above the current bookshop, also seems unworkable – a glorified hallway, more for contemplating traffic than art. Circulation, allegedly harmonized into a ‘loop,’ will surely remain as big a problem as before, at least when the construction is complete in 2018–19. Between now and then it’ll be even messier.

And with the three new galleries in the overblown Nouvel tower, MoMA will pick up just a piddling 39,000 square feet (3,600 square meters) of exhibition space. It’s a negligible, frankly insulting contribution to the display of the permanent collection; it will also do nothing to alleviate the overcrowding that has afflicted the museum since 2004, which is not just an inconvenience but a conservation hazard. The permanent collection, grossly shortchanged in the Taniguchi building, is neglected again in the DS+R plan, neglected by design in favour of the pseudo-egalitarian gigantism seen in museums such as Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London to Monumenta in Paris.

Concept design for The Museum of Modern Art. Axonometric plan. © 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Can MoMA do better? My argument, sorry to say, is that it probably can’t. It’s been bracing to witness the universal outcry following last week’s release of preliminary plans for MoMA’s latest expansion, with anger and despair uniting the worlds of art and architecture and stretching across the political spectrum. Yet the outcry has also been troublingly ahistorical, and I don’t think we can understand just how bad things have got, or how unlikely they are to get better, without looking at how we got here. The whole reason that DS+R have been forced to conceive this unworkable expansion is because MoMA dodged the job in 1997, the last time they embarked on a construction project of this scale. Then they were willing to ask tough questions about the museum’s future – but they balked, wagering incorrectly that all would be resolved through what Herbert Muschamp, the late New York Times architecture critic, once called ‘polite Gilded Age dinner spaces, reclad in the International Style.’ The DS+R plan is a fixer-upper, as well as a reflection of the slow drift in mission MoMA has suffered in the years between the previous renovation and this one.

The last time trustees voted to expand the museum was in 1994, a decade after the opening of Cesar Pelli’s unloved additions. (Pelli, charitably and not without humour, did not much mind. He told an interviewer in 2005 that when MoMA hired him the museum ‘was in a desperate financial situation… Now they have new wealthy patrons, they have the money, they can do it well.’) Critically, the 1990s expansion went hand-in-hand with serious, broad thinking about the future of the museum. MoMA began to consider acquiring more space over on Tenth Avenue to showcase contemporary art, but the curators bridled, on the Alfred Barr-approved grounds that modernism is a continuous phenomenon and contemporary art had to be seen in the context of the big boys upstairs. They considered, too – as was reported in a 2001 New Yorker profile of the museum’s then chief curator of painting and sculpture, Kirk Varnedoe – whether MoMA should stop collecting art after 2000 and become the definitive museum of art of the last century: MoMA as the new Musée d’Orsay! (Those keen on further study should try to find a copy of the now out-of-print Imagining the Future of the Museum of Modern Art, published by MoMA in 1998.) Instead the museum retained its commitment to contemporary art, and actually insisted that the architects being considered for the next expansion give primacy to contemporary display.

And so came the charrette (the design development phase), one of the most infuriating episodes in the recent cultural life of this city. According to a 2004 article in New York magazine, in 1996 a phalanx of trustees, joined by the then-architecture department chief Terence Riley, flew around the world on Ron Lauder’s private jet and compiled a long-list of ten firms to design the new museum. The prohibitive favourite, the press kept saying, was the Dutch firm OMA, whose principal Rem Koolhaas had just published S, M, L, XL (1995). Koolhaas’s graceless, acerbic, and truly astounding MoMA Inc. plan – greeted with a panegyric in the New York Times and utter horror from the trustees – took as a given that the museum has more functions than just the display of art, and that the building had to take account of them. MoMA Inc. recognized that Miesian purity was not just half a century out of date, but a dishonest articulation of the museum’s activities. The scheme made a feature of Museum Tower, the Pelli condominium that MoMA built the last go-round as a revenue spinner. (There’s actually a rental on the market right now, if you want it: three bedrooms on a nice high floor, and only $30,000 a month. Board approval required!) It acknowledged that commerce and culture were co-extensive, a theme he expatiated on in his Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping of 2002. And it made explicit MoMA’s transubstantiation of economic capital into social prestige, most notoriously in Koolhaas’s collages that featured black-tie revelers next to Matisses and Mirós.

What Koolhaas was saying, with MoMA Inc., was that the interweaving of art and commerce was inevitable; the goal was to manage it, design it, and thereby keep art a meaningful enterprise and not just a decoration for the shop and the restaurant. Far more than the other entrants in a field widely described as weak and uninspired, MoMA Inc. would have ‘ke[pt] the Modern modern,’ wrote critic Witold Rybczynski, rather than indulging in the ‘doctrinaire’ aesthetic of a movement ‘more than seventy years old.’ He was so far ahead of the other participants that Riley grumbled to a critic that a backlash was setting in, that Koolhaas was being victimized for being too obviously the best choice. And what do you know? Not only did Koolhaas lose, but the selection committee didn’t even allow him on the three-firm shortlist. The museum had thought very seriously for years about reinvention, had told the architects ‘to conceptualize a modern museum in the context of the future,’ in director Glenn Lowry’s words – and then, when reinvention was possible, decided that retrenchment was a better call. (‘It’s meant to be a relatively intimate experience,’ said Varnedoe.) The trustees plumped for the oldest architect on a list that, said Riley, had intentionally excluded more senior, experienced names such as Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman. Indeed, they went for the most expensive, least revisionist plan on offer – a plan that didn’t just say ‘no thanks’ to Koolhaas, but screamed ‘fuck off.’

Which is not to say that a vote for Yoshio Taniguchi had to be a vote for entombment. I’ve been to his Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in Tokyo, a smaller and vastly superior building completed in 1999. He is a gifted architect with an uncommonly light touch, and you could have made an argument for him, one in line with the MoMA-as-Orsay model that was under consideration at the time of the charrette. In the days of Frank Gehry and ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’ at the Guggenheim, you could imagine that the Taniguchi MoMA could be a place where art was expensive but at least serious. It would be a place that accepted that modern art had long ceded its antagonistic force, but would do its best to make modernism’s absorption by the establishment into a virtue.

‘The model for MoMA is Manhattan itself,’ Taniguchi told a reporter soon after his victory. Koolhaas, ironically, would have said the exact same thing of his MoMA Inc., but it turns out that Taniguchi was the one who had it right. With the age of Bloomberg soon to dawn, it was his version of Manhattan – elite, well-dressed, and obscenely expensive – which would soon efface the last remaining patches of Koolhaas’s delirious New York. In that sense, if none other, MoMA had a chance to be with the times.

Fourteen years and $858 million later, we are back at the drafting table. You don’t need me to tell you everything that went wrong with Taniguchi’s MoMA, a corporate behemoth unworkable as much other than an event space for private wealth management cocktail parties, whose new building shortchanges older and newer art at once, with a Penn Station-at-rush-hour lobby, a jailhouse façade on West 54th Street, and not even a workable cafeteria. Worst of all has been the minimal increase in space for the permanent collection, which everyone groused about soon after the doors reopened in 2004. In large part the current plans to renovate derive straight from the mistakes made last time, mistakes that seem unpardonable when you consider not only the years and dollars wasted, but also when you recall how seriously and thoroughly MoMA debated its future in those days.

Perhaps, from the perspective of the boardroom, the Taniguchi MoMA doesn’t feel like much of a failure at all. The evidence is in the retention of Lowry, the director, to oversee a second building project just nine years after such a major one, and in the wretched paucity of new space for the permanent collection in the DS+R plan, a point bewailed to no end in the press this past few days. Apologies for getting all Lady Bracknell on you, but to build no significant new gallery space once may be regarded as a misfortune; to do so twice looks like a deliberate strategy. With the exception of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA is the only museum on the planet with the collection and the resources to showcase the entirety of 20th century art. That it has once again chosen not to do so speaks volumes about the aims of the current institution, which apparently aspires only to wed a de minimis, flow-chart art history 101 upstairs to the funhouse below. What a shift from Pelli’s 1980s renovation, which for all its shortcomings at least was driven by curatorial concerns; back then you could still imaging culture existing independently from money and real estate, if only just. Now the numbers speak for themselves, the museum must be telling itself. Expansion is a birthright, plutocracy is progress, dumbing down is democracy.

I disagree with Jerry Saltz that DS+R are unqualified to build a new MoMA. On the contrary, DS+R have done some of the most impressive cultural buildings in the United States, from the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston to Alice Tully Hall just a cab ride away from MoMA. Their soon-to-open Broad Museum in Los Angeles looks promising, while their scrapped intervention in the donut hole of the Hirshhorn Museum, could have transformed Washington, D.C. What’s objectionable is the lack of thought that has accompanied DS+R’s preliminary designs, an especially galling development given the imperative that Diller and her team have placed on research in years past. DS+R have not unexpectedly slipped up after years of much better work; it’s much more plausible to conclude that DS+R is not being given a chance to do anything better than the wan designs released this week. Note that the Taniguchi MoMA, for all its severity, at least paid a small tribute to Barr’s vision of a museum of the art of our time. The DS+R MoMA jettisons that; after twelve years of Bloombergism, New York’s ultra-wealthy have new priorities. A three-story ‘art bay’ is more than just a slight to the permanent collection; it barely reflects a commitment to contemporary programming, except of the glitziest and most populist take-a-selfie-with-Marina-Abramović variety. Picasso is fine, if he stays upstairs; ‘Picasso Baby’ on the street is what they really want. In fact, the calamity that is the current MoMA plan makes it much easier to pardon Taniguchi for his own design’s shortcomings. Don’t blame the architect, blame the client.

Former home of the American Folk Art Museum, New York

None of the foregoing touches on the other big brouhaha on West 53rd Street: the destruction of the vacated home of the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (who, in a mild irony, also participated in the 1997 MoMA charrette). Perpetually empty on my visits there, its reputation has grown all out of proportion to its attainments during its short life. It’s hard not to notice how its defenders praise its paneled bronze façade almost exclusively; many of them, I suspect, rarely or never went inside, to its bonkers staircases and punishingly narrow galleries that made all the art look like so many trinkets at a Donna Karan store. Even if it were a more successful work of architecture, I still wouldn’t throw myself in front of the wrecking ball. Koolhaas, again, has it right here: too many buildings are preserved, not too few. The responsible way to foster vigorous city life is through more random, less masterpiece-oriented kinds of salvage, and an alleged jewel in a sea of glass towers is not preservation of any worthwhile sort.

The painful truth is that both West 53rd Street museum buildings, MoMA and Folk, are failures, and the only reason to oppose the demolition of the latter is because almost everything else being built on the street is less inspired and more expensive. That is not, I realize, much of a rallying cry, but it is the best I can do. Just look out the windows of MoMA’s galleries and you’ll recall what we’re up against. You don’t need to go to West 59th Street, where Robert A.M. Stern is erecting a supertall limestone skyscraper of almost unimaginable expense. Nor to West 57th Street, whose lovely bookstore in a century-old structure has just been served eviction papers to make way for yet another unnecessary luxury development. Just take your eye away from Pollock and Rothko, or your smartphone, and gaze at 20 West 53rd Street: the Baccarat Hotel and Residences, a grossly over-the-top tower that would make a Miami hustler balk, whose apartments right up to the $60 million penthouse are branded, and this is not a joke, as ‘living as high art.’ It is one of the tackiest buildings in the neighbourhood, and it was made possible only through the destruction of a branch of the New York Public Library – an institution whose megalomaniacal board is currently masterminding its own outrageous act of architectural destruction just down the road. They will be perfect neighbours, the new museum and the Baccarat Hotel and Residences: for both, high art is a branding opportunity for your real mission, namely the gratification of the super-rich.

And this, ultimately, is the real reason that so many people have become so upset about the destruction of the Folk Art Museum. The concern is less about architectural preservation and more about the galling symbolism of the big bad museum next door burying the little guy with its bulldozer and its ‘art bay.’ I get that, but at the risk of being even more of a downer than I already am, I think a little less anger and a little more fatalism is in order. If the museum, back in 1997, had gone for Koolhaas’s full reinvention rather than the incrementalism that has always plagued the place, then perhaps they could have resisted the slow drift into corporatist light entertainment that we now face. But they did not, in 1997, and this time they didn’t even try. Rather than wishing beyond hope that MoMA will change, then, now is time to learn how to live with MoMA – the way we live with a broken healthcare system, say, or climate change. We can all imagine better ways to manage healthcare or prevent environmental ruin, but under the current political and economic dispensation those just aren’t going to happen. And the same is true of culture, I’d argue. MoMA is simply a fact of life, an epiphenomenon of a larger economic and social miscarriage reflected too in the glitzy towers that ring the museum. It is fruitless, and possibly bad for your health, to imagine the museum can be fixed without fixing the seemingly unfixable structures that undergird the place. The best you can do is learn to negotiate it.

Learning to live with MoMA, accommodating oneself to its shortcomings and fishing for the virtues beneath, may be difficult. It seems especially difficult for an older generation who knew the institution, who knew New York itself, when it really was preeminent. This week, reading older critics whom I admire, from Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker to Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by their invocation of a MoMA I have never known, a MoMA without Rain Rooms, somewhere that really was the go-to place for the art of our time. I would only say that for anyone under 30 years old, a certain cultural belatedness, with middling quality at a premium price, is just part of the package of life in New York. New York is not even close to the cutting edge anymore, but we clearly don’t mind. If we wanted to be modern we would have followed Koolhaas to China long ago.

Jason Farago is an art critic for The New York Times and the co-founder of Even. He lives in New York, USA.