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

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Renzo Piano’s sketch for the planned Downtown Whitney

[Part I is here. I have since learned that my commentary for WNYC on MoMA's purchase of the American Folk Art Museum's building was aired, as well as published.]

Having been in retrenchment mode during the Great Recession, the Metropolitan Museum appears ready to flex its financial muscles again: It has just announced a new board chairman (effective Sept. 13)—Daniel Brodsky, a real estate mogul. Its most recent annual report showed an operating surplus of $3.7 million in fiscal 2010 (ending June 30), compared to a whopping deficit of $8.4 million the previous year.

What’s more, In January, the Met announced a donation of pre-recession magnitude—$10 million from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch (chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels) for a complete renovation of the Costume Institute’s galleries. (Speaking of which, elected on Tuesday as a Met trustee was Vogue‘s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, bumped up from her spot as “honorary trustee,” which she had held for her role as the Costume Institute’s gala chair and megabucks fundraiser.)

In addition to imminent openings of two long-planned suites of galleries (art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia in November; American art in January), the Met is planning to redesign and rebuild its entire four-block outdoor plaza on Fifth Avenue.

But the big news is that the museum is now preparing to annex (for at least eight years), the building currently occupied by the Whitney Museum, to be used as the Met’s contemporary-art outpost. This is scheduled to begin in 2015, when the Whitney intends to decamp for its 200,000-square-foot, Renzo Piano-designed building in New York’s Meatpacking District. The Whitney bit off more than it could chew, both financially and operationally, when it thought it could manage a farflung, two-building operation.

The Met will not only pay to lease the building—about $3 million annually, but will also “share additional revenue with the Whitney,” according to Carol Vogel‘s report in the NY Times. The museums’ announcement (linked at the top) also says that the two institutions “will seek to collaborate on collections sharing, publications, and other educational activities,” making this win-win even more winsome. The Met is considering whether to rebuild its own contemporary art wing, so it has now secured back-up space for those collections during the possible construction. It intends to continue showing contemporary art in its main building.

What’s potentially wrong with this picture is the contradiction embodied in Vogel’s article: While noting that the deal gives the Met “much needed space” for its contemporary collection, she also notes that the Met’s contemporary works “have long been considered its weakest link.” Does it really have enough important pieces in storage to fill another entire museum? Presumably this temporary expansion, which might be extended, will be used to entice art donors to enhance the holdings.

One thing we do know is that the Met has insufficient space to show its large sculptural pieces. There’s its Anthony Caro, currently in his temporary show on the roof garden (flanked below by Jennifer Russell, the Met’s associate director for exhibitions and Gary Tinterow, chairman of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art):

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Anthony Caro, “Odalisque,” 1984, Metropolitan Museum

And who can forget the Chillida that the Met controversially almost sold five years ago because, as Tinterow had told me, it was too large to be exhibited at the Met?

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Eduardo Chillida, “Silent Music II,” 1983

This Chillida became one of a group of large-scale sculptures sent by the Met on long-term loan to the “Landmarks” installation at the University of Texas, Austin. (Strangely, I don’t see the Chillida on the current list of artists in that installation, nor do I see it in the museum’s online collection database. I’ve got a question in to the Met about this.) Maybe some of those works can be retrieved from Austin to be enjoyed by New Yorkers.

UPDATE: Tinterow has informed me that the Chillida “has not been sold. It has been on loan [my link, not his] for many years at the Nasher [Sculpture Center] in Dallas” (another good home).

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The Met’s Chillida at the Nasher

Meanwhile, the Whitney told Vogel that its capital campaign has now raised some $500 million—a nice bump from the $372 million reported a year ago. When I chatted with him a few weeks ago at the Glenn Ligon press preview, Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney, stated that the latest tally would be announced at the Downtown Whitney’s groundbreaking, May 24. He offered to tell me, off the record, how much had been raised. (I declined.) Carol received that information, on the record, before the rest of us, along with an advance briefing on the entire WhitMet story. The preferential “Times First” policy continues. (Pass the ketchup.)

The Whitney apparently upped its fundraising goal when we weren’t looking: The $680-million campaign has now become a $720-million campaign. And that’s with the Met’s expected assumption of the operating costs of the Breuer building during its sojourn there.

At least the Guggenheim (in New York, anyway) is staying put. I can’t imagine its ever abandoning the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building. After all, its edifice is more of an international tourist attraction than its collection and exhibitions. Not so the Breuer, which Weinberg himself once publicly ridiculed with the observation that the “darkness of it and the moat scare people who think there are alligators and not art in there.”

In other Renzo Piano museum news: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, has just announced that it will open its controversial new wing on Jan. 19.

One final note: Fellow fans of kitschy murals will be saddened to learn that our beloved Premier Veal (Lamb Too) building, on the site of the Downtown Whitney, is now just a
cherished memory…unless, perhaps, Adam has decided to preserve and restore this adorable, cross-eyed livestock tableau as lobby decor!

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