Beyond Buildings


Museums in the Modern World: The Demise of the Folk Art Museum

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American Folk Art Museum. Courtesy: American Folk Art Museum.


I was sad to read this week that the American Folk Art Museum will be closing its Williams/Tsien–designed doors on 53rd Street in New York. The Museum of Modern Art is buying the building and, once it gets around to raising all the money it needs for the next major expansion—after its move into the base of the tower by Jean Nouvel, FAIA, for which developers are seeking funding— it will no doubt tear this recent monument down.


Old Whitney. Courtesy: New York magazine.


The news comes the same week as reports that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum are about to reach an understanding by which the Met, the mastodon of encyclopedic art museums, will take over the Marcel Breuer–designed Whitney building after the Whitney decamps for the hipper environs of the neighborhood now known as High Line. This is a tribute to reuse, both because the “Breuer Building,” as many of us know it, will still be in use as an art museum, and because the move downtown is as much a sign of the power of revitalizing neighborhoods through reuse as it is to the power of moneyed interests around the Whitney’s current building to stop any expansion with reactionary ideas of a static cityscape. The Whitney wanted to expand on its site, but either neighbors or timid Board members stopped every single plan. If only the Whitney was moving into an existing building, rather than commissioning an expensive and questionable design from Renzo Piano, the picture would be complete.


New Whitney design. Courtesy: Dexigner.


The fact that both MoMA and the Metropolitan can’t live within their bounds, and that smaller institutions with a more focused mission have trouble surviving, is itself indicative of a culture in which far-ranging browsing for images trumps the concentrated focus on selected works. Both the Met and MoMA have done a good job of creating focused exhibitions in recent times, but both overwhelm the visitor just through their sheer size—and the size of their collections and activities. It takes very intelligent programming for an institution such as the nearby Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) to make a mark and an audience for itself.


Saving the Folk Art Museum will be almost impossible, though I would like to be surprised. Williams and Tsien designed an intricate rabbit warren of exhibition spaces around a narrow staircase slot. Each of the objects has not just one, but many frames that place its explorations of the joys and sorrows of the everyday and its visions of escape from that world and its physicality within the context of sensual and almost didactic materials. The architects mined a variety of spaces and forms out of the canyons of New York and used them to turn the museum into a treasure vault of work that seems far removed from the gridded world that surrounds it.


Such a framing device would not work well for either MoMA’s collections or its expansive public programs, not to mention the circulation that its success with both necessitates: MoMA needs not warehouse space, but department store space. My only hope is that the Folk Art Museum’s façade, an indentation in the midtown block’s façades that directs you into a small opening below the patina of its massive panels, can become part of whatever MoMA decrees for this space. A memory of the particular kind of reaction to modernity that the Folk Art Museum building represented should be part of the history that the mother ship of modernism preserves and shows.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.