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MoMA’s Accessibility Crunch: Too Many Long Lines, Too Many Stairs, Not Enough Chairs

Whenever I’ve covered new or expanding museums around the country—more times than I can count over the course of almost five decades as an art writer—I’ve tried to return after the press previews to see how well the facilities worked for regular visitors, not privileged journalists.

I gave the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art a test it was bound to fail by revisiting on the Sunday after Christmas—a tourist-heavy time of year. Below is my report card, along with some pro-tips for navigating the obstacles and minimizing the amount of time wasted in waiting.

My first bit of advice: If you come upon a scene like the one below when you arrive, hold onto your warm, bulky winter jacket, rather than wasting precious time on the slow, winding road to the checkroom:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another delay to be avoided involves admission tickets. You can buy them online instead of waiting on line. Or you can simply step right up to the electronic kiosks, which seemed to be barely touched during the two times I visited during regular public hours.

Maybe more conspicuous signage or a better configuration of the payment options would help solve this puzzling problem of people lining up for the manned counter (seen behind the kiosks, below) instead of using the multilingual machines:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I admit to experiencing a touch of schadenfreude at the sight of men, not just women, suffering from urinary urgency while waiting on long lines for access to the restrooms on the lobby level:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Seeking an upper-level lavatory is the obvious way to go. Unfortunately, MoMA’s makeover didn’t extend to improving the fountains outside the bathrooms, where the water pressure is still dysfunctionally weak:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But enough about bathrooms. Let’s get into the galleries: As expected, there was a scary crush in front of van Gogh‘s “The Starry Night,” 1889—that little patch of blue, glimpsed on the right:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The award for most thankless job at MoMA goes to “Starry’s” guard (below left), who kept repeating, “Look at the painting, take a picture, move to the right”…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The visitor experience wasn’t much better in front of Dalí‘s “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I had anticipated that there would be a Monet mob in the “Water Lilies” room:

Monet, “Water Lilies,” 1914-26, as seen by me when I was alone during the press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But I never expected this:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I was dead wrong in previously complaining about how the factory noise from Dziga Vertov‘s film, “Entuziazm,” in the adjacent gallery, would disrupt the tranquility of the “Water Lilies” display. What tranquility? The hubbub of the crowded galleries, which I had not experienced during the press preview, made it impossible to hear the film’s audio unless you stood directly in front of it.

Every inch of seating on the premises (and, to MoMA’s credit, there are lots of opportunities to sit) was occupied by visitors who were often oblivious to the artworks (even, as above, when they were in close proximity to icons). Many (including the bald man, above) were scrutinizing their phones; others just needed a rest. Even with benches and ottomans scattered everywhere, some weary visitors resorted to sitting on the lobby’s hard stairs.

As evidenced above (and throughout the museum), MoMA’s 40,000-square-foot increase in display area (for a total gallery space of about 165,000 square feet) makes everyone (not just aging art critics) more vulnerable to museum fatigue—an effect exacerbated by the disjointed, counterintuitive rearrangement of the collection, which makes it harder to zero in on the types of art that most interest you, while skirting around those that don’t.

A different kind of museum fatigue (or maybe it’s just intense concentration) can be seen here:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This was the audience for the final performance at MoMA (on Dec. 15) of David Tudor‘s “Rainforest V (variation 1),” the first offering in MoMA’s versatile new performance space. A three-person group, Composers Inside Electronics Inc., controlled (via laptop computers) the sounds emanating from “20 constructed sculptures and everyday objects” (in the words of the printed program).

A resonant, low-pitched segment of this 1973-2015 composition seemed to have had the soporific effect seen in the above photo. But the audience did manage to perk up when it came time to applaud:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Because my glitchy knees have improved, I managed to stay on my feet for about three hours during my most recent MoMA visit, clocking 3.1 miles and 7,105 steps (including the roundtrip walk from my car to the garage). But by the end, I was experiencing the New York version of “Stendahl Syndrome,” for which Florence is famous—wooziness from an art-overdose.

Perhaps the most distinctive features of Diller Scofidio + Renfro‘s (DS+R’s) uncharacteristically characterless addition (designed in collaboration with Gensler, the architecture, design and planning firm) are striking sightlines that offer multi-level vistas, echoing this one in the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed atrium, which offers tantalizing hints of two special exhibitions:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On the upper level is member: Pope.L, 1978–2001 (to Feb. 1). Below is Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window (closing Jan. 4)—a quiet oasis of thoughtful introspection, astutely installed to pace one’s journey through her work without disrupting visitor flow.

MoMA’s slightly off-kilter “Betye Saar” installation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Some of the best Saars on display, including the show’s title work (below), belong to MoMA, so we can hope to see them again after the show closes.

Betye Saar, “Black Girl’s Window,” 1969, Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A new DS+R-designed multi-level vista near MoMA’s main entrance is more problematic: Passersby on the sidewalk can gaze down into the museum’s main book store, which can be accessed from a long staircase or via the cylindrical, transparent elevator beside it…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…or maybe not. Here’s what I saw when I was poised to enter the elevator during my most recent visit:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It always seemed to me a logistical and commercial mistake to sink the main retail area below ground level. The dysfunctional elevator confirmed my hunch and also gave me traumatic flashbacks to the non-moving escalators I had encountered while attending the press preview for The Shed—another recent New York project by DS+R.

If you’re sufficiently able-bodied, you can always hike up and down the stairs. The striking staircase in MoMA’s new west wing has been dubbed, “the blade stair”—named for its “six-inch-thin vertical spine [that] hangs from the roof structure to structurally support the stairs and landings, leaving the structure free of any lateral bracing” (in the words of DS+R’s “structure”-heavy description).

The “blade” is the vertical slab, below, seen between these two sections of the staircase:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a view of the staircase where it ascends to the fifth floor. Although the museum was crowded, not many visitors made it up there by foot. (There are working elevators.)

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

After five visits, I still haven’t entirely gotten the lay of the land at the new MoMA. If and when I do, it will be largely for naught: MoMA intends to regularly rotate works in and out of its impermanent displays of its permanent collection. In this post, I suggested how MoMA might have provided a better balance by creating “suites of fixed galleries, surrounded by related changing galleries,” as had been discussed (but not implemented) in connection with the 2004 Taniguchi expansion.

They should reconsider this. It might help to reduce navigation confusion and museum fatigue, while keeping more of MoMA’s most renowned masterpieces on consistent display.

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciated my coverage last year (including my previous posts on the renovated and expanded MoMA), please consider supporting CultureGrrl this year by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of my new posts.

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