MoMA's Faux-Populist Expansion Makes it Look Like a Department Store

This is how you ruin a cultural institution

by Jed Perl | January 13, 2014

photo credit: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

“It looks like a fucking department store.” That’s what a friend wrote me the morning after the Museum of Modern Art announced plans for yet another expansion of its quarters on West 53rd Street. I couldn’t agree more. Of course this isn’t exactly a surprise. MoMA has been looking more and more like a fucking department store since the greatly expanded museum reopened in 2004, with a sleek new building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. And Glenn Lowry—the museum director who presided over that expansion and has now given his blessing to further expansion, masterminded by the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro—appears to quite like it this way. What he wants is a bigger fucking department store.

Anybody who knows anything about institutional operations can see that the p.r. blitz Glenn Lowry spearheaded last week—it has the lofty title “The Future MoMA: A Work in Progress”—is part near-term problem solving, part long-term problem solving, and a whole lot of pie in the sky. It’s easy to mock Lowry’s egalitarian gestures. He sounds like nothing so much as a CEO explaining a new strategy for H&M or Trader Joe’s when he chats about making the museum “a more open, accessible, and engaging place,” one where art “becomes a greater and more resonant part of people’s daily lives.” You can’t blame the man for wanting to make something warm and friendly of MoMA’s ongoing conquest of most of the block between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas and West 53rd and 54th Streets. 

For a decade now MoMA has been locked in a marketing battle with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The goal is to see which museum can be turned into the biggest tourist trap. (Almost simultaneously, both museums decided to keep their doors open seven days a week.) It hardly matters that the “concept sketches” that Diller Scofidio + Renfro have whipped up for the new entrances to the museum are, if possible, even chillier and more impersonal than what’s there now. (The considerable felicities of Taniguchi’s architecture are defeated by the building’s size.) For decades, it’s been clear that the bigger MoMA becomes, the less open, accessible, and engaging a place it becomes. Glenn Lowry and his wealthiest supporters are almost morbidly content with the museum’s status as a cultural behemoth, and they have more than enough clout to follow their authoritarian schemes wherever they lead. MoMA is the Gilded Age Goliath of West 53rd Street. The Age of de Blasio may have dawned. But at least for now New York remains a winner-takes-all town. 

MoMA Sculpture Garden entrance
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
A concept design of the sculpture garden's entrance on 54th Street.

The most immediate loser in this ongoing saga is the slender little building with the eccentric bronze façade on West 53rd Street that until recently housed the American Folk Art Museum. MoMA bought the property when the Folk Art folks nearly went bankrupt, and the only hard news in Lowry’s “The Future MoMA” media blitz is that MoMA will indeed tear down the Folk Art Museum. (Skeptics will have good reason to dismiss the rest of MoMA’s infomercial as a smokescreen.) I’ve never been a fan of the Folk Art Museum’s building, designed by the widely admired firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects; I find it self-consciously idiosyncratic, an exercise in luxurious bohemian eccentricity that calls attention to itself rather than to the art on display. But considering the enthusiasm with which the architectural community closed ranks with Williams and Tsien last April, when MoMA said it would demolish the building and then backed off to restudy the problem, the new announcement that not one smidge of the building will be preserved tells us a lot about MoMA’s take-no-prisoners approach. 

Of course Lowry wants us to imagine that even as he taketh away the Folk Art Museum he giveth MoMA’s sculpture garden, which will now be open to the public free of charge. Ever the swaggering politician, Lowry has left the folks at Diller Scofidio + Renfro to do his dirty work. Connoisseurs of the cultural carousel will savor the irony of one marquee-name husband-and-wife architectural team—Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio—giving the okay to the demolition of work by another marquee-name husband-and-wife team. And I wonder if Williams and Tsien, who were perfectly content to design a new building for the Barnes Foundation in downtown Philadelphia and thereby lend their prestige to the trashing of the old Barnes Foundation in Merion, realize that they are now getting a little of their own out-with-the-old medicine. 

However one wants to see the short-term winners and losers on West 53rd Street, the long-term prospects are bleak indeed. What is clear is that so far as Lowry is concerned, bigger is better. In the last few years more and more museum professionals have decided that what the public wants is all encompassing, mood-modifying or mood-expanding experiences. Of course what the public wants is conditioned by what the powers that be decide to market to the public, and art events such as MoMA’s Marina Abramović extravaganza a couple of years ago and the Rain Room just last summer and James Turrell’s Aten Reign at the Guggenheim may in fact turn out to be favored by museum officials because they’re cost efficient. Nobody in the museum world now feels they can ignore the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, a room whose authoritarian proportions bring to mind the architectural ambitions of fascist regimes.  

American Folk Art Museum
Andrew Burton/Getty Images News
The soon-to-be-destroyed building formerly used for the American Folk Art Museum. 

The Turbine Hall has become a tourist attraction of unprecedented proportions, filled year after year with a humongous site-specific work by Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, Rachel Whiteread, or some other international art star. Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has gone so far as to hire Sheena Wagstaff away from Tate Modern to bring some of her faux avant-garde bling to the Met as it takes over the Whitney’s old building on Madison Avenue. Is it any wonder that Lowry has included in his plans for the future “a new flexible, double-height glass-walled gallery for contemporary art and performance—opening directly onto 53rd Street.” Increasingly, art museums are colonizing the middlebrow bohemianism that the Brooklyn Academy of Music has perfected and that has made the Park Avenue Armory a hot exhibition site. MoMA wants some of the old BAM magic, and has been boldfacing performance art at PS1, their outpost in Queens. If it works, you’re going to have BAMoMA on West 53rd Street—and I promise you it’ll be full of baloney.

Considering what a chaotic experience entering MoMA has become in recent years, with the crowd scene running straight from 53rd Street to 54th Street, it’s rather extraordinary that what Diller Scofidio + Renfro have proposed to do is more of the same, making the “entire ground floor … an expanded and reorganized entrance hall.” While there is something admirable about opening the sculpture garden to the public, it will almost inevitably lose the intimacy and inwardness, the sense of an island in the city, that is the genius of its original design by Philip Johnson (which has admittedly changed a great deal over the years). Of course intimacy—the sense of the one-on-one experience of the work of art—has been in short supply at MoMA for more than a decade. Which is not to say that there isn’t any good news. My feeling is that a battle (albeit generally a losing battle) has been waged within the museum, with some constituencies working to maintain its old playful seriousness, the combination of rigorous scholarship and adventuresome sensibility that made MoMA great. 

Concept sketch for The Museum of Modern Art.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Concept design of the lobby, looking west.

Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, two extraordinary scholar-curators hired in recent years, have given the museum’s historical shows a new kind of beauty and gravitas. And there are always lovely little surprises, the most recent being the sharply focused show dedicated to John Cage, “There Will Never Be Silence,” which includes some small, ravishingly elegant 1947 wire constructions by Richard Lippold. The sad truth, though, remains that what Lowry mostly cares about is satisfying the out-of-town tourists, who come to see Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s Red Studio, and (if they happen to be around this winter) are finishing their visit by plopping down in the atrium to gawk at Isasc Julien’s ridiculous multi-screen chinoiserie film extravaganza, Ten Thousand Waves. 

I was not surprised that Lowry cited Alfred H. Barr, Jr, MoMA’s visionary founding director, in defense of his own twenty-first-century market-driven populism. Barr, Lowry said, wanted to create an art space that was “directly connected to the street.” It is true that Barr was an unabashed populist when it came to making the case for the strange and difficult art he admired. Barr would have set up a circus on West 53rd Street if it helped to get people into the museum and persuade them to take a long, serious look at a Matisse, a Malevich, or a Mondrian. (Dwight Macdonald, that close student of cultural trends, couldn’t resist mocking Barr’s sometimes whimsical democratic instincts when he profiled him in The New Yorker.) The thing about Barr’s populism was that it wasn’t about giving people what they thought they wanted so much as it was about giving them what he believed they would eventually be capable of wanting. With that extraordinary vision, he revolutionized the taste of several generations. 

Granted, arguing what Barr would have to say about MoMA in the twenty-first century is a little like arguing whether George Orwell, if he were alive today, would be a liberal, a neoliberal, or a neoconservative. We can’t really say. But there is no mystery as to what Glenn Lowry has done to Barr’s MoMA. Even as Lowry has wrapped himself in what he imagines is Alfred Barr’s gonzo populism, he has destroyed MoMA’s intimate-scaled galleries, and with them the sense of engaging with a modern masterpiece as if you were in your own living room. That was the glory of the Museum of Modern Art. True enough, there are moments and corners at MoMA where you can still regain that extraordinary feeling, but they are few and far between. Once upon a time the Museum of Modern Art was a home away from home for anybody who cared about modern art. Now it’s a fucking department store. Soon enough—if Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s plans are to be believed—it’s going to be an entire fucking mall full of department stores. 

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