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The Folk Art Museum Mess And Modern Architecture

AmericanFolkArtMuseumSo, as we have learned, the dispute over the future of the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street has gotten personal. The architects, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, no longer speak with Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, who studied the problem for the Museum of Modern Art,* which has been trying to raze the building, and decided the 10-year-old building has to go. It was bound to happen, given the cast of characters and the ambitions of MoMA.

People have been asking me about the issue for days now: I guess one has to take a stand.

I’m with MoMA, and have been since it bought the Folk Art Museum in 2011. While I sympathize with Tsien and Williams, and while I am not sure I like MoMA’s new plan in its entirety (let’s see all the details first), the art must come first in any museum. The Folk Art Museum may have been an “aesthetic gem” to some — certainly not to all, as that is a subjective judgment — but it never worked for the art it was to display, not even for folk art. That’s its prime purpose, yet the awkward angles and small galleries made it fail that purpose.

A lot of new museum buildings are wanting nowadays. But as architecture critic and former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum Aaron Betsky wrote nearly three years ago, it’s usually for the opposite reason — they’re just big boxes, highly expensive ones at that.

When I speak with people at museums, usually off-the-record, about this issue of poor museum architecture, I almost always get the same analysis: architects, being creative types, want to do what they want to do, and boards are afraid to question their judgment. Directors are afraid to contradict their boards. Meanwhile, neither the boards nor the directors have studied the problems at other museums — poor flow, wrong entry point, misshapen or poorly sized galleries, etc. They don’t head off problems.

True, the MoMA-Folk Art mess occurred when ownership changed, not because the Folk Art Museum expressed unhappiness with the building (though I had heard some grumblings). Yet somehow museums need to get a better handle on the buildings they keep erecting — or else, as MoMA keeps doing, we’ll keep rebuilding and rebuilding but never improve the situations. Many people I know believe that MoMA hasn’t had a good building since the 1960s.






  1. Museum leaders have a responsibility to insure their museums are accessible. Beyond the traditional meaning, arts organization must offer social access. The way the institution presents itself to the public and how it is perceived, not only by the artsy crowd but by the hoi poloi. The Brooklyn Museum reconstructed its face to the community, eliminating the imposing limestone staircase and opening the galleries with street level glass walls, communicating “come inside, people like you are here and we welcome you.” Diller and Scofidio demonstrated this at Lincoln Center as well, by eliminating the plinth and the speeding taxi traffic that cut off the complex from the street. How the community perceives the institution is as important as its collections. Rogers and Piano wanted to “create a cross between the British Museum and Times Square,” and so two unknown non-French architects were awarded the Pompidou commission. The American Folk Art Museum presented an unwelcoming, vault-like face to the community. Finding the entrance was daunting and once inside navigating it was disconcerting (the Barnes to me shares these characteristics-the entrance takes work to find and once inside navigating the halls to reach the collection is disconcerting). Architecture is art, but must be in the service of the public. MOMA’s design will further open itself to the public (free, ungated spaces). Museum buildings must be more than icons, they owe a responsibility to all stakeholders. Full disclosure, I was one of the witnesses for the Friends of the Barnes who were trying to stop the move of the museum to Philadelphia. James Abruzzo

    • I agree with much of what you write, but — as I have before — I take issue with the idea that steps and grand entrances are imposing, off-putting and “intimidating.” Where is the evidence for that? The Brooklyn Museum has not seen an increase in attendance because it changed its entrance. Every museum director I have ever spoken with, not to mention other experts, has said that attendance is exhibition-driven and that it has nothing to do with so-called more “accessible” entrances. Further, many museums have made mistakes with their supposedly more accessible entrances. I would put Brooklyn in this category, but I have a better example with the Morgan. Renzo Piano’s undistinguished entrance on Madison Avenue changed the axis of the building, destroyed a beautiful courtyard in favor of a open atrium and, worst of all, obscured the way to Morgan’s Library and office, where his gorgeous pictures hang. As a result, many visitors to the Morgan do not even know those two rooms, plus the rotunda and small gallery that was Bella DeCosta Greene’s office, exist.

      I have no statistical evidence, either, but I assert that historic entrances, including those with grand staircases, can be just as welcoming as street-level glass walled entrances. Otherwise, no one would be going to the Met, the NYPL on 42nd St or even NYC’s main post office on Eighth Ave.

  2. Chris Crosman says:

    I agree, in principle, that museum architecture often fails the art it is supposed to house. But sometimes there is also a failure by the museum to clearly articulate its needs (the architectural program) or provide a sufficient budget or, in the case to the Folk Art Museum, provide an adequate site. And, then, there is always the failure of imagination by museum patrons, directors and curators. There has been a bit of backlash in the blogosphere against the architectural community’s unhappiness with the prospect of tearing the building down. Much of it centers on the perception that the original building was not very good for the display of even its original purpose for the display of Folk Art. That is just as subjective an assessment as the idea that the Folk Art Museum is an aesthetic gem. Diller and Scofidio may be correct that the present building is unworkable for MoMA’s much different collection and expansion plans. Still, one wonders if the elevator and stairwell could be removed and other issues of flow addressed whether or not the Folk Art building’s galleries could not be salvaged for art works in MoMA’s collection that are an appropriate fit–namely, parts of their design and architecture collection showcased in a building that has its own significance as architecture and design. Maybe this is bending the art to fit the building but it sounds a helluva lot more interesting and mission appropriate than the gimmicky glass box and performance spaces mentioned in their preliminary announcement. We are presented with the egg on face spectacle of a museum that collects and exhibits architecture destroying a building that, if idiosyncratic and quirky, (Guggenheim, anyone?) has stimulated about as much conversation about architecture in New York as any building in recent memory. Blake’s image of Saturn devouring his children certainly comes to mind.

  3. The Taniguchi building was widely hailed when it opened, yet no one now is complaining that it will be modified, largely because it is perceived as a failure (and perhaps because he’s not an American architect with many friends here). The Folk Art building also failed as a place to show art and it is appropriate to replace it.

  4. In my opinion, MOMA gave up the right to say the art comes first when they built the new building where i believe most of the art is ill served. It is the coldest and most unsympathetic museum i have ever been in with Branly in Paris being a close second.

    The Folk Art Museum while being imperfect in its presentation of the art was at least a comfortable space for the viewer whereon is not overwhelmed by the supposed Grandeur of the place as in MOMA.

    MOMA has just become the play thing of the Billionaires who see which one can outspend the other and push for their own agendas. I gave up my membership years ago and frankly don’t go back though i know i have missed some good shows. But i have now heard from others, serious collectors, who have given up their membership in protest of the tearing down of the Folk Art Museum.

  5. Ben Pickard says:

    The fate of the American Museum of Folkart is a microcosm of the problem of presentation of cultural objects in the USA.

    Your article, and its replies, are an outline of the miasma which the various museum constituencies create.
    When the elements of a Museum director, museum board & major contributors, Architects, and Fundraisers have all met and come to a decision – only one half of the total culture consuming audience is served.

    Missing is the museum visitor population served by the collection.

    Where are the city planners, and the other community keepers of the culture(s) served and housed in the museum.

    Directors often have pre-determined agendas; contributiors too much influence; architects fixed concepts. A greater consultant group is needed: City planners, anthropologists, sociologists, artist-thinkers, ecologists.

    The museum is a container of collected art products of specific culture(s) from a selected time and place.

    What we see here, in microcosm, is a re-occuring problem of high-density structural concentration within a constrained space.

    Nowhere is there a discussion of the meaning of the museum or the culture represented within its collections.
    Or its proper placement within a city.

    What is this in reality ? A power struggle.

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