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NYT MoMA Critique Isn’t Just About Architecture

Oh, how sweet to see other critics picking up themes related to those I have been harping on mostly on my own. Consider this, about the recently proposed new Museum of Modern Art*:

MoMA's expansion planMoMA and Diller Scofidio hoped to sweeten the pill by promising improvements to the museum’s lobby and opening its sculpture garden to the public free during museum hours. They also propose, in place of the razed building, a Gray Box for performances, above an Art Bay, with a retractable glass wall and spaces for yet-to-be-conceived presentations, visible from the street….[It’s] a lot like the one Diller Scofidio has proposed for the Culture Shed, a glossy event and exhibition center without portfolio… [and meanwhile, across the street from MoMA, the] Donnell Library Center, a long-shuttered branch of the New York Public Library, is scheduled to reopen late next year …at a third of its former size, with wide bleacher seating and steps as the main feature. “More like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other,” is how the library’s architect, Enrique Norten, describes the plan.

It’s all the same flimflam: flexible spaces to accommodate to-be-named programming, the logic of real estate developers hiding behind the magical thinking of those who claim cultural foresight. It almost never works.

Boldface mine (exuberantly). That was from today’s New York Times, by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman.

Here are two related quotes of mine (but regular readers of this blog will know there have been many more here):

Many young directors see museums as modern-day “town squares,” social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever. They believe that future museum-goers won’t be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it… (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24, 2010.)


Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, has seen the future. In a speech he gave a while back in Australia, he noted that museums had to make a “shift away from passive experiences to interactive or participatory experiences, from art that is hanging on the wall to art that invites people to become part of it.” And, he said, art museums had to shed the idea of being a repository and become social spaces….

This is all in the name of participation and experience — also called visitor engagement — but it changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what….(New York Times, Aug. 11. 2013).

And — as Kimmelman says — it will not work, not if MoMA wants to be a respected museum. But maybe it just wants to be hip.

Photo credit: Courtesy of MoMA

*I consult to a foundation that supports MoMA.


  1. Judith, you are absolutely right here. The fact remains that MOMA owns the world’s greatest modern art collection, and it has the potential to display the entire range of twentieth century art with a comprehensiveness that no other museum can attain. It ought to be to modernism what the Louvre or London’s National Gallery are to old masters. Instead, MOMA wastes space on artless frivolities, and keeps too many essential works in storage.

  2. For me as an artist many museums have served as a “social gathering place”. This concept is what many galleries and venues try to provide to increase their draw, hoping for more sales due to the numbers, but not always the result , where the social aspect pulls the crowd in for a hip experience. So with a museum seeking admission and membership numbers providing a hip experience might increase those numbers initially but for how long before what is hip becomes mundane in the viscous circle of “edutainment”. For those of us who go to museums drawn to the art, there is always an inherent participation experience, always that sacred space between the art and the viewer.

  3. scott redford says:

    As an artist I always get concerned when people go on about “that sacred space between the art and viewer”…Ummm why don’t you all just go to Church? Please stop turning art exhibitions into secular quasi Holy spaces. They are not. They may be for you but not for others. OR why not extend your analogy to The Image itself and its self alone, then we would need to include images of Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson as these too are devotional images often. We risk being merely elitist if we insist that our “religion” and ours only must be protected. Having said all that the images of the new MOMA look ghastly. Like some bland shopping mall and I like shopping malls. So one doesn’t have much faith in what future management will do in these spaces when a McDonalds (by Superflex no doubt) would work better. The key symbol for all this is the soon to go Folk Museum building. If only Joseph Beuys were here to designate the whole structure and its compromised interior an artwork then they’d probably keep the whole thing! Beuys of course once quipped when being asked his thoughts on the Berlin Wall: “It should be 5cm higher”. Unfortunately such wise wit is beyond MOMA and the real estate moguls. Oh well when the mer=tior hits the world or we all freeze over it will be mote hey?

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