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Meet the “New MoMA,” Same as the Old “New MoMA”

It was déjà-vu-all-over-again when I returned yesterday from a California sojourn to the “news” about how permanent-collection installations in the new MegaMoMA (my sobriquet, not theirs) will contrast with those in the current iteration of the ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art.

Below is a rendering of the new 53rd Street façade, as reconceived by the project’s expansion-and-renovation architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro. On the left is the new Jean Nouvel-designed apartment tower (with its signature diagrids). Extending into its lower floors is MoMA’s new David Geffen Wing, named in gratitude for a $100-million gift from the entertainment mogul:

Rendering © 2017 Diller Scofidio + Renfro

In a “Dear Friend” email sent Tuesday by Glenn Lowry (now known as MoMA’s “David Rockefeller Director,” thanks to an astounding $200-million gift from the estate of the museum’s late benefactor and former chairman), I was belatedly informed (after other journalists had already weighed in) that MoMA will be closed to the public from June 16 until Oct. 21. It will then reopen with an expanded, completely reorganized (or creatively disorganized) display that intersperses its fabled holdings with new acquisitions and unfamiliar works unearthed from storage.

As MoMA describes the new hang of its permanent collection:

Contemporary art will join early masterpieces and we’ll mix mediums—from painting to performance—and ideas. We’ll highlight work by artists from more diverse backgrounds and geographies than ever before and we’ll change our galleries seasonally so you’ll always find the most resonant and innovative art.

CultureGrrl readers have heard it all before—not once, but several times. Here’s what I wrote back in January 2014:

As foretold to me last September by Lowry, plans for the reconceived galleries, expanded by 40,000 square feet (with 30% more space for the collections), call for intermingling works in all mediums and from all disciplines (photography, architecture, design, film, media, prints, drawings, performance, painting, sculpture).

That’s exactly what was supposed to have happened with the [Yoshio] Taniguchi expansion, where the initial plan was to break down departmental walls and present fully integrated installations—another promise that remained largely unfulfilled.

And back in December 2015, I described chief curator Ann Temkin‘s plan to bring “the fluidity of the loan program to the collection galleries,” through a series of temporary exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection.

Advance look at one of the new Geffen Wing galleries
Image courtesy of Turner Construction Company © 2019 Max Touhey

This concept of surprising (or disorienting) regular visitors by disrupting the canon was a key point in Tuesday’s press release limning the “reimagined presentation of modern and contemporary art”:

The Museum will systematically rotate a selection of art in these [permanent-]collection galleries every six to nine months. By 2022, MoMA will have re-choreographed each of its galleries across the fifth, fourth and second floors—and will constantly renew the presentation.

Back in October 2009, Temkin had told a group of journalists, including me (as I reported here), that only about 10 works (!?!) from the collection were considered so important and iconic that they should always remain on view. She had then envisioned rehanging a quarter of the permanent-collection galleries every 18 months or so.

As I stated in May 2017, in connection with MoMA’s plan to dispatch to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, a survey show of 200 works from its collection, “The new policy of rotating many masterworks off display means that they can be shipped off, en masse, to other venues, perhaps for a hefty rental fee.” There’s been no indication yet from MoMA whether future rental shows are contemplated for works being rotated off display.

As someone who, as a teenager, repeatedly hopped onto the D train from the Bronx to sample various museums’ remarkable collections, I find Scrambled MoMA indigestible. I relied on the city’s great museums as my guide to the world of art and artists, and I had many personal touchstones that I expected to see in familiar places. A foreign tourist, for whom a MoMA visit may be a one-off, would be even more disadvantaged than a regular visitor if significant portions of the museum’s icons were rotated off view to make way for less celebrated works that haven’t stood the test of time.

I took scant comfort from Robin Pogrebin‘s NY Times report that “visitors will still be able to count on highlights like Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night.'” We need to be able to savor a good chunk of “the canon,” not just token morsels. No other modern art museum can satisfy that need better than MoMA.

Nevertheless, Pogrebin’s NY Times colleague, veteran art critic Holland Cotter, seems to have swallowed whole MoMA’s party line:

The advantages of such switchovers [rotations of objects in and out of the galleries] are many. Repeat visitors will have fresh art experiences. New histories will get told. Old canons will start to erode….

I suspect the new schedule will keep MoMA staff up late working nights, which, of course, young people can do, no problem. So with luck, much of the shifting and rethinking will be assigned to junior curators.

Such over-reliance on junior staffers would keep me “up late at night,” wondering why the most experienced and deeply knowledgeable curators were being sidelined, along with the museum’s masterpieces. What’s more, Cotter’s impression that working late nights is “no problem” for young curators—many of whom have young children who crave time and attention from their overworked parents—is startlingly clueless.

What’s needed, in my view, is a healthy balance both at home and in the galleries. Before it’s too late, I think MoMA ought to rethink its radical rethinking of displays. It should use its more than 40,000 square feet in additional gallery space to supplement the canon, not to deplete it.

Otherwise, “Starry Night” may soon be even more mobbed than it is already:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Still playing catch-up, I have a series of queries pending with MoMA’s press office. If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

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