As a NYC cultural journalist and critic for more than five decades, I’ve covered many landmark events at the Metropolitan Museum. But my excitement on Monday, when I was on hand for yet another celebratory Met occasion, was tempered by my fear of being infected at what looked likely to be major Covid-spreading event. Double-masked, I hung back from the main crush, which prevented me from regaling you with a new CultureGrrl Video. Although I cowered in the corner, there was no evading this scrum at the “Groundbreaking” (more like a sandbox-shoveling) for the renovation of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing:
Compounding my fears was the failure of Met personnel to enforce (at least in my case) the museum’s own Visitor Guidelines:
In accordance with the New York City mandate, all visitors age 5 and older must show proof that they have received at least one dose of an accepted vaccine to enter the Museum. All visitors age 18 and older must also show a valid personal ID.
Driving in from New Jersey, I entered the museum through the garage, not the main entrance, and no one requested my proof of vaccination or ID. (I trust that this was an isolated oversight.) What you can’t see in the above photo are the rows of chockablock seats along the length of the curtain wall.
As for this mandate, fuhgeddaboudit:
But enough of my hypochondria. Let’s focus on the robust speakers: Among them was Mary Morgan, daughter of Nelson Rockefeller and twin sister of Michael C. Rockefeller, for whom the 1982 wing was named. That ill-fated anthropologist “had given his life in the pursuit of new avenues in inquiry into art of the Pacific,” with a focus on the “striking Asmat sculptures [that] he researched and collected in Indonesia’s Papua Province,” in the words of the Met’s press release, which obliquely referred to his mysterious disappearance. Located at the southern end of the museum, the Rockefeller Wing, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, echoes their wing at the northern end of the museum (with a similar curtain wall) that encloses the Temple of Dendur. Current infrastructure problems, including deterioration of the curtain wall, are part of what’s driving the plans to restore and reconfigure the Rockefeller wing.
The use of a glass wall to enclose a wing filled with light-sensitive artifacts was problematic from the get-go, and the situation has grown worse, with the lower panes now presenting a clouded, rather than transparent, vista onto Central Park:
Here are some of the changes anticipated in the Met’s sweeping “reenvisioning” of the wing and its holdings (as described in detail here):
The glass wall abutting Central Park will be replaced to allow greater illumination, and increased space will be allotted to the presentation of art….Most importantly, the three major world traditions [African, Oceanic and Ancient American art] will stand as independent entities in a wing that functions as a dynamic nexus in dialogue with neighboring spaces. The redefinition of the galleries will underscore distinct architectural vernaculars relevant to the three collection areas.
The planned installations will elucidate artworks’ aesthetic qualities, tether them to historical and cultural movements, highlight individual authors and the provenance of specific artifacts, introduce commentary by leading public intellectuals in diverse fields, and provide greater clarity and accessibility to visitors. This project is informed by extensive archival and field research as well as international dialogue, including a series of scholarly workshops.
Unlike the re-do of the Met’s Modern Art Wing, the reinvention of the Rockefeller Wing won’t include a renaming. That’s not to say that this makeover will be devoid of naming opportunities: Newly named sub-spaces “will be announced in the future,” a Met spokesperson told me. And in related news, the name of Lila Acheson Wallace, although bumped from the Modern Art Wing by Oscar Tang, will remain on the Egyptian galleries that bear her name—Galleries 101-128 and 132-138, in the northeast corner of the first floor on the Met map.
In kicking off Monday’s festivities, Met President Dan Weiss reiterated his recent assurance that the $70-million Rockefeller Wing project is “fully funded.” I requested and received this (partial) breakdown of where that money is coming from:
—$22.3 million awarded by NYC through the Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency (ACE) program, which “provides funding for projects that reduce emissions, energy use and costs, all of which the renovation of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing project will accomplish”
—$12.8 million for the renovation this fiscal year from a combination of City Council ($7.75 million), Mayoral Administration ($5 million), and Manhattan Borough President ($50,000)
—“Other sources” (presumably including some private donors—maybe even a
Projected to reopen in 2024, the Rockefeller Wing will feature “three distinct suites of galleries for Sub-Saharan African Art, Ancient American Art, and Oceanic Art.” Meanwhile, as Met director Max Hollein indicated at the groundbreaking, objects temporarily displaced from the closed-for-construction Rockefeller Wing will appear in “exhibitions here in the museum, as well as traveling around the world.” First up: The African Origin of Civilization (no announced close date). In its current iteration, it features 21 pairings of works from Egypt and Africa, including some of the collection’s greatest hits.
The unofficial Met mascot—“Figurine of a Hippopotamus,” Middle Kingdom, early Dynasty 12 (ca. 1961–1878 B.C.), faience (better known in the museum gift shop as William)—is herein paired with a more homely hippo (unlikely to appear on anyone’s gift list): “Power Object (Boli), first half of 20th century, wood, earth, organic offerings”:
The fragment below, on left, gained fame when it was described by the Met’s legendary director, Philippe de Montebello, as “one of the greatest works of art…in the world, of any civilization” (a quote that appears on the first page of Rendez-vous with Art, his collaborative ramble through American and European museums, galleries and churches with art critic Martin Gayford):
One attendee conspicuously omitted from the speakers’ program was the architect for the Rockefeller’s renovation—Kulapat Yantrasast of the wHY architecture firm, whom I first encountered in 2014 while he was working with Tadao Ando on the Clark Art Institute’s Stone Hill Center. Standing inconspicuously in the middle of the Met’s scrum, Yantrasast was unacknowledged.
I caught sight of him standing under a camera, wearing reflective eyeglasses:
I’ve never before attended a groundbreaking where the architect was present but not among those wielding a shovel:
When I asked Kulapat about this afterwards, he told me that he didn’t care about being in the spotlight. Still, let’s give him a moment of due recognition. (That’s him on the right, looking into my camera.)
One thing that I think will remain constant amidst all the renovations, reinstallations and renamings is the credit line on the Met’s floral arrangements:
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