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MoMA Faces More Opposition To Folk Art Museum Plans

The Museum of Modern Art has been getting a lot of pushback on its decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum — it’s increasing, rather than diminishing, and more big names are joining in. For example, the Architectural League of New York has just sent an open letter to MoMA against the plan, signed not only by Annabelle Selldorf, the League’s President, but by Thom Mayne, Hugh Hardy, Richard Meier, Wendy Evans Joseph, Frances Halsband, Robert A.m. Stern, Michael Bierut, and others (many members of the board of directors). It says, in AmFolkArtMuseumfull:

The Architectural League calls on the Museum of Modern Art to reconsider its decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art—the first museum with a permanent curatorial department of architecture and design—should provide more information about why it considers it necessary to tear down this significant work of contemporary architecture. The public has a substantial and legitimate interest in this decision, and the Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive twelve-year-old building.

The Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, was sold to MoMA in 2011, and — truth be told — joining it to MoMA would not be easy. The floors don’t line up and, worse, the galleries, imho, are not ideal for showing art. They are small, irregular and dark. Unfortunately, many museum buildings are not great for showing art. So MoMA announced its plan to demolish the building by year-end and start afresh.

Several anti-MoMA petitions are circulating. One, started by Robert Bundy of New Haven, Ct. on, has 2,777 signatures as of this writing. It asks MoMA to save the building. Another on, started by Christopher Brandt of Rochester, seeks the same and has 2,984 signatures now. The Petition Site has one with 185 signatures, and has one with just three signers at the moment.

All this shows that today’s social media are making life a lot more complicated for everyone.

What else should be learned from this? Museum boards and directors should be far more careful about they get from architects to begin with. They’re the client; the architect is not the boss. The Williams-Tsien building may have been a little better suited to the folk art collection than it is for MoMA’s — but not much. It’s sad that a building may come down after just 12 years in existence, but I’m still wondering why it was approved in the first place.




  1. You sum it up perfectly: “It’s sad that a building may come down after just 12 years in existence, but I’m still wondering why it was approved in the first place.”

    The people who are agitating to keep the Folk Art Museum building intact are people who do not care about MOMA. I even wonder how many of them even went into the building when it was open. Why saddle MOMA with an intractable space when the one thing MOMA needs most urgently is to rectify the errors committed with the Taniguchi building? MOMA used to be a good place to see, savor, and appreciate art; now it’s more like a badly designed department store (with “boutique galleries”). It needs an entirely new layout with comfortable galleries and vastly improved traffic control. It needs to be a grand place in which the visitor feels elevated. Trying to incorporate this failed building into the next iteration of MOMA is a recipe for failure on both fronts.

    Let us hope that these petitions fail, although I can see how MOMA may end up being bullied into doing the wrong thing.

    Thank you for your sensible take on this issue.

    • Traditionalist says:

      I agree with BobG on just about every point. Not every architectural effort is sacrosanct. I don’t see a happy resolution to any attempts by MOMA to repurpose the grim little Williams/Tsein building. Both it and MOMA’s own Taniguchi building are monuments to architects’ hubris that compete with and ultimately do a disservice to the great art they are supposed to feature. Lots of form, little function. Let’s hope this dialogue will bring to light the dangers of letting architects (and misguided museum administrators) bully forward similarly unsuitable, expensive new museum buildings. Museums should primarily be about putting collections on display, not about having an “architectural experience”–especially when it bankrupts the institution.

  2. I wonder if it would be cost-effective, rather than tearing the building down and designing and building a new one from scratch, to hire Williams and Tsien to do a gut rehab while saving the façade.

    I don’t get the sense that it’s the interior of the building that all those folks are clamoring to save …

  3. scott redford says:

    I disagree with you that the ‘little building’ is unusable. it would make a perfect cafe restaurant and bookshop or distinct gallery for works on paper or smaller works. MOMA supposedly admires Design…well apply some creative design instead of being Albert Speer and knocking everything down!

    • How about using it as storage? It’s climate-controlled and dark. A rare book repository?

  4. Mr. Bundy’s one-sentence “petition” leaves something to be desired. I just needed to say that.

  5. William Litwack says:

    Taste is personal but architecture thrusts taste into the public space. Everyone, myself included, has his or her opinion.

    I have only visited the Folk Art Museum twice. I thought — and think — it is magnificent. To create a building of such quality on such a narrow, inhibiting footprint was an incredible accomplishment. I love the facade. The angle, shape, and texture of the panels transforms what might have been simply monolithic into an exciting, mysterious and totally appropriate entry. I suppose the galleries were a bit awkward, but given the space the architects had to work with they did a wondrous job. The variety of materials and textures and viewpoints created a perfect setting for the type of art on exhibit. For this visitor, the museum never overpowered the art — it helped make it exciting to discover the art.

    The first time I visited the museum I came away vibrating with admiration and enthusiasm for this wonderful building. MOMA’s new building is conventional and mediocre by comparison. Even worse, MOMA’s spaces are much less hospitable that the Folk’s — and with no excuse whatsoever given the budget MOMA had to work with and the large amount of land.

    Perhaps it would be impractical to convert the Folk into MOMA gallery space but there are plenty of other ways to use this building. Of course, keeping it would be a constant reminder that the Folk, architecturally-speaking, got right what MOMA blew.

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