MoMA: The Re-imagining of a Museum

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Modern art's New York home re-opens to the public amid fanfare, and everyone has an opinion about the $425 million makeover

"Going to the new MoMA is like seeing a friend after they've been on Extreme Makeover. You instantly admire the improved parts, miss the old lovable bits, and recognize you may need time to adjust."  --Overheard at MoMA

After two-and-a-half years squatting in Queens, the beloved MoMA will re-open to the public in its Manhattan home this Saturday (Nov. 20). Go north of 42nd Street and you can feel Midtown quiver with excitement. Architect Yoshio Taniguchi's re-imagining of the Museum of Modern Art launches a rush of emotion, triggers an avalanche of ideas, and will leave visitors twirling around inside the new-and-improved building like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

More space, more visual surprises

The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 with the ambitious mandate of its first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., to be "the greatest museum of modern art in the world". Many would say it's lived up to Barr's heady challenge.

Over the years, the museum's seen two locations and three major additions/structural changes: Goodwin-Stone's 1939 building, Phillip Johnson's 1951 annex, and the 1964 renovation.

The latest incarnation of the MoMA is the most dramatic yet, and some of the best news of all is that it's increased its exhibition space from 85,000 to an impressive 125,000 square feet. All six curatorial departments--Architecture and Design, Drawings, Painting and Sculpture, Photography, Prints and Illustrated Books, and Film and Media--are well represented. To take it all in easily takes a full day; you'll want time to linger over new acquisitions (there are many) and say hello to important works of 20-century art, like Picasso's 1907 LesDemoiselles D'Avignon, that held prominent spots in the old MoMA for years.

Surprises await those who take a stroll through the new MoMA, and there's no denying that New York City is an integral part of the new museum. Grayed floor-to-ceiling windows seemingly hover in mid-air, allowing the city to peek in to such an extent that it becomes an important back-drop to the art. Sections of the Museum Tower are laced with catwalk passages that not only inspire vertigo, but confirm the vastness of the vertical space, and the vastness of the collection. It all impresses.

"The MoMA is breath-taking; the new space and installations opened my eyes to works that I had been appraising in the same familiar ways over the years," says Astrid Persans, a former Associate in the museum's International Program.

First impressions

If you go to the MoMA on or around Opening Day (which will be free to the public, by the way), your first impressions are not likely to have much to do with the soaring, pristine-lined building at all. Instead, expect to see protesters at the front doors wearing giant twenty-dollar bill sandwich boards. The price of admission at the new MoMA is now a wince-worthy $20 per person--$8 more than its former ticket price (making it one of the most expensive museums in the world). Activists have set up a website that claims that the funds used for the museum's renovation "could have provided the old MoMA's 1.8 million annual visitors with free admission for forty years."

And you will enter the new museum with dollar signs in your eyes. The first whiff of money and the $425 million renovation comes within steps inside the ample, airy lobby, which you can now access from W. 53 and W. 54 streets. All of the important entrance areas--admissions, information, coat-check--are also wisely spread apart, aiding with crowd control. While the space's cool slate gray and white tones and industrial flavor could easily veer into the realm of uninviting, the aesthetic and dimensions are surprisingly welcoming--more clean and Zen than anything else. The renovation is intelligent.

Wend your way through the lobby and you're greeted by a wide low-slung stairs (which invite sitting) and expansive views of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden--a space that features 31 works of art and that Taniguchi refers to as "perhaps the most distinctive single element of the Museum today." He sought to transform the area into a true "an urban oasis" and succeeded, by punching up the "garden" elements and planting beech, elm, and birch trees. Philip Johnson's original 1953 design is preserved yet enhanced by other changes, which include an expanded southern terrace that'll be used for formal outdoor dining at The Modern restaurant. What could be more wonderful that tucking into diver scallop tartare while gazing upon Claes Oldenburg's Geometric Mouse (1975)? The indoor-outdoor spirit of the Sculpture Garden is the essential element of the new museum, and the key to appreciating the success of the renovation.

Director Glen Lowry describes the MoMA as "a laboratory," a statement that implies experimentation and points to the museum's current curatorial vision. "There's more of a focus on contemporary art now, but no real historical context or easy way for viewers to understand what they're looking at," says Virgil DeVoldere, a member of MoMA's Junior Associates and co-founder of the art gallery Slingshot Project.

Many works on the lower floors seem placed together at random-by color or shape or with no obvious connection at all. Meanwhile, older arguably more important pieces are hidden away on the upper floors. Go from frame to frame past Cezanne's slightly skewed still-lifes and Picasso's deconstructed portraits on the fifth floor and you get a sense of progress. Problem is, most visitors will make a beeline to the first floor atrium, which connects from the lobby. There, they'll be greeted by Barnett Newman's hulking, tension-producing sculpture, Broken Obelisk, a work that clashes with Monet's neighboring Water Lilies. Their relationship is unclear, but the fact that Water Lilies are no longer hung on angled walls to create an immersive environment, and come off as simply paintings, is what'll really leave people scratching their heads.

Devoldere adds, "The biggest mistake for me was to put Matisse and Brancusi in the stairwell. At times, the art's placement seems more decorative than anything else."

Clearly opinions over the success and short-comings of the museum's changes will be up for debate for a long time, but one thing is certain: We have entered a new era in modern art and museum history. Art Critic John Russell once said, "When art is made, we are made new with it." The same can be said for the MoMA.

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