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Museum Musical Chairs: Met at the Whitney; MoMA at Folk Art—Part I

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The American Folk Art Museum’s sliver building on W. 53rd Street

Help me! I have a lousy sense of direction and can’t seem to find some of my favorite NYC museums!

The Whitney Museum’s building is going to be (temporarily, at least) an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum. The American Folk Art Museum building will be part of the Museum of Modern Art. And the Whitney will be…where? (Groundbreaking for its behemoth Renzo Piano-designed facility in New York’s Meatpacking District is scheduled for May 24.)

All of these dislocations (perhaps even the Met’s move) were the result of faulty planning.

I’m not saying this only with the benefit of hindsight. Almost three years ago, in my radio commentary on New York’s WNYC, I presciently questioned the practicality and financial viability of the Whitney’s two-building plan (starting a little before the half-way point on the audio bar). I then quoted Jennifer Russell, now associate director for exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum, expressing similar misgivings.

As for the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), there have been rumors swirling around the New York artworld for years that it lacked adequate financial underpinning for its new Tod Williams Billie Tsien-designed facility, adjacent to MoMA, which opened in 2001.

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The dark gray building building near the center of the photo, adjacent to MoMA, to the left rear of the empty lot, is the American Folk Art Museum.

I talked yesterday about AFAM’s current predicament with Marlon Bishop of New York Public Radio (WNYC). They’ve posted a written piece about our conversation, but (as far as I’ve been able to determine) no audio was aired. [UPDATE: A friend heard me Thursday morning, but, to my knowledge, the audio isn't online.]

Back in September 2008, when the Brad Cloepfil-redesigned home for the Museum of Arts and Designed opened on Columbus Circle, its director, Holly Hotchner, boasted to me about the financial underpinning backing her project ($86 million raised towards the $90-million capital campaign goal; $13 million towards the $20-million endowment goal). During our conversation, she contrasted that financial success with what she then understood to be the shaky situation at AFAM.

The sad part of this museum musical chairs is the forthcoming decampment of AFAM for its small uptown satellite facilty near Lincoln Center. MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry, who never saw a property on his block that he didn’t covet, managed to secure the right-of-first-refusal for his institution to buy AFAM’s building. Through a spokesperson, MoMA declined to answer my question about how much it is paying to acquire the building.

One of the last financial straws for AFAM involved MoMA: The Folk Art Museum had hoped to sell its air rights to the MoMA/Hines skyscraper project (which grew to 85 stories after I wrote the post at this link), designed by Jean Nouvel. That project, now stalled due to the unfavorable financial climate, had seen its planned 1,250-foot height (which would have necessitated the purchase of AFAM’s air rights) reduced by 200 feet during the city approval process. AFAM’s executive director, Maria Ann Conelli, had been among those who unsuccessfully beseeched a City Council committee to allow the full height, during public hearings in October 2009:

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Maria Ann Conelli, executive director, American Folk Art Museum, speaking on behalf of the MoMA/Hines skyscraper project at a City Council committee hearing.

Soon before the announcement of the sale of her museum’s building to MoMA, Conelli resigned her post, effective this July. My phone message to Conelli yesterday, requesting comment, was unreturned.

My guess is that MoMA will eventually knock down the failed museum’s building and add the land (and air rights) to the Nouvel construction project, if the developer, Hines, should eventually decide to proceed. A MoMA spokesperson informed me: “The details for how the
building will be used have not been determined, though we expect to use
it for exhibition space.”

Critic Jerry Saltz writes for New York magazine that architecture killed AFAM. To some extent, I agree. This is a sliver museum, wedged into a tight space, with dark, narrow galleries. Its inhospitability (not to mention a condensation leak directly in front of artworks, which I had observed there four years ago and has presumably been fixed) raises concerns for the controversial new Barnes Foundation building rising in Philadelphia, designed by the same architects.

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Interior of American Folk Art Museum

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The Philadelphia Barnes, under construction

But it’s the financials that really did AFAM in. Attendance was anemic, fundraising inadequate and it lost its megabucks patron and former board chairman, jeweler Ralph Esmerian, who became embroiled in lawsuits regarding his finances three years ago and was arrested on criminal charges last November. The recent financial downturn, which ate into all museums’ endowments, must have further weakened AFAM’s already shaky foundation. It has defaulted on the $32-million in bonds that had been issued by the Trust for Cultural Resources of the City of New York to finance its construction.

If AFAM had a low profile at its 53rd Street site next to MoMA, it’s going to have an even lower profile at its Lincoln Square outpost on Columbus Avenue—a former public arcade that looks more like a storefront than a museum:

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To its credit, AFAM has said that it is not raising cash by monetizing its collection. We can only hope that it will collaborate with MoMA and other institutions to increase visibility for its activities and significant holdings.

In happier news, the Whitney/Met deal sounds, for the most part, like a win-win arrangement. More on that, COMING SOON. [Part II is now here.]

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