The pros and cons of the destruction of the American Folk Art Museum
"Great art museums not only contain exemplary works of art, they are also places where -- in a single visit -- surprise, learning, and reflection come together in a liberating set of experiences" ("Building for the future," MoMA).The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has encompassed within its walls some of the most cutting-edge works of art ever created, spanning many decades and many art movements. Its own design has striven to be equally revolutionary in terms of its conceptualization. However, like many museums, it has found itself accused of elitism quite frequently because of the costs of admission. Still, according to its website: "the Museum of Modern Art is committed to being the most welcoming museum in New York, and to bringing art and people together more effectively than ever before. A major new building project will expand MoMA's public spaces and galleries, allowing the Museum to reconceive the presentation of its collection and exhibitions and offer a more open, accessible, and engaging experience" ("Building for the future," MoMA). MoMA is thus seeking to redesign itself and create a more egalitarian framework for showing artwork. It seeks to expand, incorporating more free public space into its outreach -- but this ambition comes at a cost, namely in the need to raze the American Folk Art Museum, which currently stands in its way.
With the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro MoMA currently plans to create a new structure filled with "flexible alternative spaces that provide access to art directly from the street" ("Building for the future," MoMA). Admission will be free to the entire ground floor, including the sculpture building, and there will be new galleries and performance spaces. "With 40,000 square feet of new galleries providing 30% more space for experiencing MoMA's collection and exhibitions, we'll be able to expand our programming, present recent acquisitions, and bring together works from all mediums in new and unexpected ways" ("Building for the future," MoMA). Initially, the plan was to reuse the abandoned American Folk Art Museum and connect it to MoMA. However, Diller Scofidio + Renfro concluded "nature of the AFAM, with its many sculptural stairs, multistory voids and partial floor plates, would have to endure alterations" and ultimately so much of the building would need to be destroyed it was not worth saving ("Building for the future," MoMA).
Defenders of AFAM are outraged because of what they consider to be the intrinsic beauty of this New York landmark. Although after failing to draw public interest, AFAM was 'bought out' by MoMA, its supporters believe the building itself has every right to be preserved, just as much as the pieces in MoMA's collection. Said one critic: "the Museum of Modern Art is on the march again, advancing westward down 53rd Street, sweeping away the old American Folk Art Museum and planting its flag in the base of a future skyscraper…Only the American Folk Art Museum building, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's twelve-year-old gem, has to go, because, like a cobbler's shack next to an airport, it's in the way" (Davidson 1). The argument for preserving AFAM is that it is a unique structure just because of its stairs, voids, and complex designs which have made it so vexing to integrate into the Diller Scofido + Renfro conceptualization of the new MoMA.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro argue that "the connective tissue between one structure and the next would have created disfiguring scars, the mechanical apparatus on top would have occluded the lovely skylights, and the idiosyncratic staircase would have to have been amputated in any case" (Davidson 1). In short, there would have been no way of preserving what was great about AFAM. Diller Scofidio + Renfro have been somewhat defensive about their design, realizing that their actions could give rise to charges of wastefulness. "As strong advocates of adaptive reuse, our studio has successfully reconciled rich pieces of New York's built history with new programming and audiences, extending the relevance of both the High Line and large parts of Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were unable to reconcile the AFAM with the shifting program around it," wrote the architectural firm in a direct response to critics on the MoMA website section devoted to the project ("Building for the future," MoMA). In an era where 'greenness' and reusing are common buzzwords, the need for sustaining existing landmarks which are far from in a state from disrepair is a popular position. Even though it is argued that it did not fit in with the Diller plans, then the question is raised: why not change the plans; why not have made the plans more organic to the existing space?
The director of Columbia University's historic preservation program noted that not only was the decision not in keeping with the current ethos of sustainability, it was actually rather remarkable even by historic standards. "It's very rare that a building that recent comes down, especially a building that was such a major design and that got so much publicity when it opened for its design -- mostly very positive…The building is so solid looking on the street, and then it becomes a disposable artifact," in the face of MoMA's expansion (Pogrebin 1). MoMA is claiming to honor the need to uphold the value of art and preserve it yet it is arguably tearing a great work of architecture down to do so.
Further questions are raised of how architecture is valued in general. Unlike art, there is often a demand that architecture serve a practical function because of the massive space and the resources required to preserve it. It is both functional as well as aesthetically pleasing and thus is often far more threatened than a painting which can be easily stored and tucked away in an attic until it becomes fashionable again. The folk art museum was described as interesting and small and an excellent venue to study different aspects of architecture for students by its supporters -- none of which is cultural currency enough to allow for it to remain. "The folk art museum, which had once envisioned the building as a stimulus for its growth, ended up selling the property, [to MoMA] at 45 West 53d Street, to pay off the $32 million it had borrowed to finance an expansion" (Pogrebin 1).
Those in favor of the MoMA expansion would point to the great knowledge that will be gained and spread through increased access to MoMA, denying charges of MoMA 'creeping' into the neighborhood and shoving away its neighbors. "The new design does contain several persuasive virtues. It creates new access points…It peels off a strip of the black-glass facade along 53rd Street to soften that NSA-headquarters look. It [opens] new passageways and" thus improves traffic flow (Davidson 1). The new design is also intended to bring more people to the museum through the expansion of public spaces and publically accessible art, something that the folk art museum did not achieve, despite the nature of the works contained within it.
Symbolically, the fact that the folk art museum came into being around the same time as New York was healing from the 9/11 attacks makes its destruction even more tragic and in the views of its supporters does not justify any virtues which might be gained: why destroy a structure which was to be symbolic of the city's rebith? The idea of MoMA's institutionalized modern art creeping out folk art is likewise bothersome, symbolically in some eyes: "folk art denotes point-of-view: this is the design's understated message. History, aesthetics, anthropology, religion, psychology, politics, authorial intention: the works on view will try on as many interpretive frames as we care to toss around…