The news that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is getting rid of its dedicated architecture and design galleries is thoroughly depressing to me as a former curator in that field, but also as somebody who makes a beeline to those galleries almost every time I am in New York. MoMA is our temple of modernism, our touchstone of 20th century art and design, and the place we turn to show us what is good and important in modern art, architecture, and design. The fact that they no longer see fit to give the design fields the respect they have struggled so hard to achieve makes me feel mad at this big brother of an institution, but also helpless, because it means that our field is just not drawing the interest and support that will convince an art corporation such as MoMA to continue to dedicate significant real estate to its exhibition.
MoMA was the first major museum to establish a Department of Architecture and Design, way back in 1932, under Philip Johnson’s leadership. Over the years, its exhibitions have helped to redefine the discipline: the inaugural International Style exhibition, of course, but also such game-changers as the 1975 resurrection of the École des Beaux-Arts, the attention it has paid to social issues in recent exhibitions on survival by design (Safe Design: Taking on Risks, 2005), low-cost housing (Small Scale, Big Change, 2011), and the effects of climate change (Rising Currents, 2011). It is a blood sport for us critics and carpers to make fun of or point out the problems with these exhibitions, but that is at least in part because they are so important. Nothing shines a spotlight on architecture the way a MoMA exhibition does. It is one of the very, very few events that can instigate a broad public discussion on the designed environment. Having one’s work included in the permanent collection, and then be on display in those hallowed halls of high design, is about as high as an achievement as most designers could hope to achieve.
Of course MoMA claims that its commitment remains unflagging and that the displays will now be fully integrated into the displays of painting and sculpture and this is only temporary and yadda yadda. That is the argument made every time curators and administrators notice that more people are looking at the Picasso then at the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe model. I tried the integrated display myself as a museum director and found that the pressure of the powerful curators who have more traditional media as their purview (and marketing people and support groups behind them) means that the sprinkling of design artifacts remains vestigial, while architecture drawings, models, and experimental objects—which are so difficult for a general public to understand—don’t have a chance.
Let’s face it: Architecture is being marginalized (and design along with it). It has been a long time coming. The field does not draw a public, period. Its work is difficult to understand. And, what is perhaps most important, it has never been able to make an argument for itself within the art museum context. As one of my art curator colleagues once sneered at me: “The work we show was made because the artist believed in it. The work you show was done because they were paid to perform a service. It is not art.” The fact that architecture and design can be more powerful and effective catalysts for change, or can represent our modern world more fully than most paintings, is not something such troglodytes want to hear.
So, RIP Architecture and Design at MoMA. I hope the young new Director of the Department, Martino Stierli—who unfortunately has almost no experience in exhibitions or collections—will be able to salvage a few moments and memories. And I hope donors and designers both will turn to alternatives such as the Museum of Arts and Design, the Cooper Hewitt, or any institution willing to give design its due space and attention. And, a helpless but heartfelt shame on you, MoMA. What once was a progressive institution dedicated to showing good and important work has become a glorified shopping mall serving up predictable products.