The Sad Story Of A Museum In Danger: MoMA Vs. Folk Art

5 comments

rexusa_1446185aPhoto: Alys Tomlinson/REX USA.
Bad news, folks. MoMA recently announced plans to (once again) demolish the empty Folk Art Museum as part of its expansion plans. There has been understandable uproar from the arts and architecture community over the loss of a great building designed by the well-regarded architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

This is actually the second time MoMA announced it has to demolish the FAM. The first incident came in the spring of 2013, which led to a very passionate public outcry. MoMA, to its credit, reconsidered the move and hired the architects Diller, Scofidio & Renfro to study the problem. If any firm has experience solving complex problems in NYC, it’s DSR, which has successfully renovated Lincoln Center and transformed the High Line into one of the greatest urban parks in the world. However, in this case, DSR came back with the same conclusion — that FAM could not be successfully integrated into MoMA’s expansion plans. Integrating the building, in DSR’s opinion, would compromise the FAM’s idiosyncratic spaces, stairs, and skylight atrium, and at the same time disrupt MoMA’s desire for larger galleries and continuous circulation corridors.

It is baffling to many that DSR, one of the more theoretical and experimental architecture firms in the world, could not find a way to adapt the FAM into something both surprising and unprecedented — instead, it essentially came to the same conclusion that any developer would. Disappointingly, DSR was seemingly unable to muster a more radical approach to propose a new direction for MoMA beyond its basic need for more real estate.

Which is a very real need. Anyone who has been crushed by the crowds at MoMA lately can understand that the museum faces a critical period in its development and needs to expand or risk losing its standing in the art world. But, the resulting angst over losing one of the city’s architectural treasures highlights a bitter lesson in the long-term planning failures of both institutions.

If the FAM had better understood its economic place in the city's competitive arts industry, it might have undertaken a more modest project that would have been easier for it to manage over the course of time, and allowed it to grow more sustainably. Instead, it went for broke, hired one of the city’s best architects, and built an ambitious, if impractical, new home. It was as if a small downtown arts agitator suddenly decided to move into a midtown mansion — they were broke in less than 10 years and were forced to sell the building to their next-door neighbor (in this case, MoMA).

The fact that MoMA ended up with the property in this back-alley deal exposes some very poor planning from the other end of the arts-industrial complex. MoMA has the power to raise huge sums of money and could have actually purchased this property long ago with the plan to expand in that direction when the time was right. In short, FAM bit off more that it could chew, and MoMA shied away from its own inevitable growth trajectory and is now bursting at the seams. It will be a tragedy to see FAM demolished. But, in some ways, this whole urban fiasco is a lesson in the capricious nature of arts institutions who have very little public support at the state and federal levels, and are increasingly reliant on private funding — which can be taken away as quickly as it can be had.