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