Everybody enjoys watching a David and Goliath story unfold. So it is not a surprise that a cultural controversy starring the Museum of Modern Art as a rapacious Goliath has become national news. The kickoff was MoMA’s announcement a few weeks ago that as part of its continuing expansion on West 53rd Street it planned to tear down the former American Folk Art Museum, which was designed by the firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and only opened a dozen years ago. There are many reasons for preserving the building by Williams and Tsien—which MoMA bought in 2011, after the American Folk Art Museum defaulted on nearly $32 million in bond debt—but the hue and cry has gotten so loud that I suspect the issues involved are bigger than Williams and Tsien and maybe even bigger than MoMA. The intensity of this unfolding drama reflects a growing—albeit sadly belated—realization that the arts are being consumed by Goliaths, not only in New York but all across the country, and that even the bravest and noblest of Davids rarely stands a chance.
For the moment, MoMA has blinked, announcing that they have hired the architectural firm of Diller Scofidio & Renfro to study the matter. But what fascinates me is how white hot the debate has become, especially when we consider that little that has happened is much of a surprise. Although the American Folk Art Museum was never a good place to look at art—the site was so narrow that it may well have been impossible to create adequate galleries—it is not surprising that New York’s culturati would be up in arms about a threat to the museum’s jewel-box design. (Williams and Tsien have a ferociously fervent following.) And it is hardly breaking news that the Museum of Modern Art has become a colossus that steamrollers anything in its path. Well before MoMA’s expanded quarters, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, opened in 2004, it was clear that Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, was determined to remake as a well-oiled corporate machine what had theretofore been an institution where curators and departments were acclaimed for their distinctive personalities and values. Defending Williams and Tsien and the American Folk Art Museum against the meanies at MoMA has become a way of reveling in what is now seen as a classic tale of architectural desecration and cultural victimization. What I worry is being sidestepped is the sad fact that for decades now the cultural commissars in the museums and the media have been giving the nod to countless Goliaths and would-be Goliaths. We are living in a world where David loses just about every time.
One of the rarely discussed ironies of this story is that the American Folk Art Museum—now sadly diminished and doing the best it can in space across from Lincoln Center—was itself once upon a time a wannabe Goliath. There would never have been a building by Williams and Tsien to be sold to the Museum of Modern Art if the American Folk Art Museum had not gone $32 million into debt in order to raise its own profile. Very few people now seem to remember that the American Folk Art Museum used to occupy an old townhouse on West 53rd Street, a setting surely less than perfect but with a plucky, can-do spirit that worked much better for the work on display than Williams and Tsien’s overblown, go-for-Baroque design. The American Folk Art Museum went into debt because the ironclad law of cultural institutions is that if you do not grow—and grow big—you’re in big trouble.
The ironclad law of cultural institutions is that if you do not grow—and grow big—you’re in big trouble.
Why isn’t anybody asking where this once winningly modest museum would be today if somebody had said “No!” to that obscene mentality? Another one of the ironies of this sad story is that as the architectural team who designed a slick new downtown Philadelphia building for the Barnes Foundation, Williams and Tsien were active participants in the defeat of a muscular and altogether noble David, the old Barnes in Merion, Pennsylvania. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, darlings of the architectural profession, gave just the right kind of elegant packaging to a newfangled Barnes, which was promoted—and successfully promoted—through a court battle and an extensive public relations campaign by the Goliaths of the grow-or-die mentality.
But the Goliaths are everywhere you look in the cultural sphere. And mostly they’re the winners. Glenn Lowry at MoMA long ago made it clear that he would permit no Davids among his curators—there would be no threats to his centralized power—although it must be said that the atmosphere at MoMA has improved somewhat of late, with a more fluid and imaginative use of the permanent collection, an outstanding example being the installation of an entire room devoted to work by Paul Klee, an essential modern master the museum sidelined in recent years. In Chelsea, although there are still here and there worthwhile exhibitions, more and more of the energy is sucked up by galleries so oversized and bombastic that a visit to the latest Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, or Paul McCarthy exhibition brings to mind a freak show rather than an art show. Whether we are talking about the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the High Museum in Atlanta, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—all of which have recently been or are currently in the process of building campaigns—the rule seems to be that expansion is essential to survival.
What is really needed in the arts community right now is a forthright critique of the corporate model, which decrees that an institution that does not grow is doomed, probably sooner rather than later. The fight over Williams and Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum has pushed a lot of critics to argue—and argue with considerable energy—that small is indeed beautiful. I am all for that argument, although I am sorry to say I find Williams and Tsien’s façade for the American Folk Art Museum overly fussy in its meshing of bronze alloy cladding with an origami-like angularity. This much ballyhooed design is unresponsive to the life of the street, from which it seems to recoil, an out-and-out failure when compared with the elegantly curving overhang and easygoing, welcoming entrance of the façade of the 1939 MoMA building, preserved a few footsteps to the east. Nevertheless, I stand with those who hope the Museum of Modern Art finds a way to integrate at least some aspects of the Williams and Tsien building into their upcoming expansion. West 53rd Street, as many have observed, could do with more rather than less visual variety. I can accept the Williams and Tsien façade as an honorable failure of the romantic imagination, an inadvertent exercise in the higher kitsch with a trumped up patina to which time will perhaps add some genuine allure.
Whatever happens on West 53rd Street, the bigger question remains. Why is there so much reluctance—among critics, among museum directors, among museum boards, among arts funders and foundations—to say “Enough is enough”? Why does the Morgan Library and Museum, once upon a time one of the New World’s great monuments to Old World connoisseurship, find it necessary to exhibit the work of Matthew Barney, the metrosexual performance artist who has already had a retrospective at the Guggenheim? Why does the Whitney Museum of American Art find it necessary to abandon its half-century-old Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue in favor a brand new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District? Rarely now is there even a hope that agile intelligence will triumph over brute force. That ray of hope is what gives the face-off between the supporters of the Museum of Modern Art and the supporters of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien its deep fascination.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.