Sunday, August 31, 2014

142. MOMA and the Frick: Is Bigger Better?

     When is bigger better?  Americans have always been enamored of bigger and better, usually equating the two, which also meant faster and newer.  Change was by nature good, and we generally rushed into it without assessing the cost.  This was a new country with new ideas, new religions, new industries, new territories, new cities, new language, new everything, and we scorned anything old as fogyish, ancient, undemocratic, and just plain bad.  Progress and Go Ahead were in, tradition and precedent were out.  We were an adolescent nation, willing to take chances, to grow, to expand, to experiment, and were scornful of Europe and its mature, even decadent societies.  So of course bigger is better; how could it not be?  Or is it?  At times we catch our breath, we wonder. 

The Museum of Modern Art

     In New York City, where Go Ahead has also reigned, the museums are absolutely convinced that bigger is better.  The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), a stellar attraction with a fabulous collection, has blazed ahead with dramatic renovations, so as to house its huge collection and meet its growing need for more space for educational and research activities, and to accommodate the ever growing throngs of visitors.  Which hasn’t been easy, since the museum is situated in the heart of midtown Manhattan, squeezed in by other buildings on all sides.

     So what has MOMA done?  Expand in the only direction possible: upward.  As part of its 1983 expansion it built the 52-story Museum Tower at 15 West 53rd Street, a soaring high-rise providing six floors of museum space and, above that, 248 condominium apartments with high ceilings, huge rooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of Central Park to the north and of the city skyline, and in some cases the museum’s sculpture garden.  The building’s amenities include doormen, a concierge, a fitness center with a sauna, a steam room and a meditation room, a business conference room, a wine storage room, a landscaped roof terrace, and housekeeping and laundry services.  What, indeed, does it not offer?  But these attractions aren’t for just anyone.  A one-bedroom apartment currently starts at over $2 million, and a two-bedroom at $4.5 million.  So bigger is better for those who can afford it, and for the finances of the museum, which sold the air rights for the tower to a private developer for $17 million.  But just who lives in the tower remains a mystery, since real estate agents promote the amenities offered but not who takes advantage of them. 

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MOMA and its sculpture garden.hibino
     But the 1983 tower was just the beginning.  In 1997 the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi beat out ten other international architects to win the competition to redesign the museum once again.  The museum was closed from May 21, 2002, until November 20, 2004, while Mr. Taniguchi worked his miracles, imposing a long fast on those tens of thousands, myself included, eager to feast on MOMA’s Picassos, Matisses, Van Goghs, and other splendors, unless, for a modest taste of those splendors, they were willing to undertake a perilous journey into the wilds of Queens, where a few treasures were displayed in a former staple factory in Long Island City. 

     So what wonders did the museum now offer, at a cost of $858 million?  Yet more space for exhibitions, classrooms, auditoriums, library, and archives.  But more than that, Mr. Taniguchi promised to make the architecture disappear.  Did he?  I can hazard an opinion on the public spaces, since I have set foot there, an adventure denied me for the 1983 tower.  And what have I found?  Plunging perspectives that make me feel distinctly uneasy, even though I have no particular fear of heights.  (I have climbed to the top of pre-Columbian pyramids in Mexico and Guatemala and – the real test – come back down again without a flutter of qualms.)  And glass walls that seem like there are no walls at all, which likewise makes me uneasy.  Having survived these terrors, I’m always glad to enter exhibition rooms that have four solid walls, a ceiling, and a floor, with no such menacing perspectives.  Architecturally I'm a hopeless old fogey.

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File:USA-Museum of Modern Art.jpg

   What did the critics say of the new MOMA, the brain child of Mr. Taniguchi?  Roberta Smith of the New York Times decried a “big, bleak, irrevocably formal lobby atrium,” hard-to-find escalators and elevators (true), and too-narrow glass-sided bridges (also true) in a “beautiful building that plainly doesn’t work.”  Author John Updike in the New Yorker cited the “enchantment of a bank after hours, of a honeycomb emptied of honey and flooded with a soft glow.”  So the prevailing note seemed to be coldness and a want of charm.  Granted, New York critics have a talent for savaging anything, but in this case I’m inclined to agree.  In the case of the ever expanding MOMA, bigger is not better.  Better in terms of new space acquired, certainly, but at the cost of less intimacy, less warmth, less comfort and ease for visitors.

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The bleak and crowded lobby.

      Is more progress or mayhem to follow?  In 2007 the museum sold a lot on its west side at 53 West 53rd Street to Hines Development, an international real estate developer, for $125 million.  Hines announced grandiose plans to build Tower Verre, an 88-story high-rise designed by French architect Jean Nouvel that would be almost as tall as the Empire State Building, with a faceted exterior with crisscrossing beams, its sleek form tapering to a set of crystalline peaks at the very top, where glass walls with tilting trusses will give a sense of being simultaneously both enclosed and exposed – a design that shocks some but inspires and excites many.  Bland it ain’t.  The city’s Department of City Planning insisted that the structure’s height be cut by 200 feet on aesthetic grounds, but it has still been welcomed as an enterprise that would finally let New York compete with the startling initiatives of Dubai and Singapore and Beijing.  The tower will house three floors of exhibition space for MOMA, a 5-star hotel, and 171 luxury apartments – these last obviously just what New York City needs more of.  But the economic crisis of 2008 hit architecture hard, and Hines’s soaring residential tower was delayed indefinitely until, in October 2013, the needed $1.3 billion was reported to have been found, thanks to loans from a consortium of Asian banks and from billionaire investors in Singapore, with an assist from Goldman Sachs.  Construction is slated to begin in mid-2014 – in other words right about now, though I haven’t been up there to check things out. 

Singapore by night.  Can New York match it?
Eustaquio Santimano

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The projected Tower Verre.
     So what do I think of the projected Glass Tower (verre = glass), not meant to be the tallest building in the world, but one that narrows, stabs, and needles upward to celestial heights?  The English art critic Ruskin said of Gothic architecture, “It not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle.”  If New York is to rival the architectural daring of Asia, what better place for it to happen than at MOMA and its midtown neighbors?  I hadn’t anticipated such a conclusion, but this venture is a challenge.  Can New York still dare and astonish?  I hope so.  It has always dared in the past, and its daring produced Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller and Lincoln Center, the UN building, and the Twin Towers – most of them unprecedented and all of them astonishing.  Is Go Ahead still alive?  Does the dark eros of the city, the force that drives New York, still exist?  Nouvel’s surging tower suggests that it does.  If foreigners have faith in the city, surely New Yorkers can, too.

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The American Folk Art Museum in 2006,
in perilously proximity to MOMA.

David Shankbone
     What a comedown to have to state that in 2011 the ever expanding MOMA, its galleries jammed with visitors, acquired for $31.2 million the home of the financially strapped American Folk Art Museum at 45 West 53rd Street, adjoining its property on the east, and that two years later it announced plans to demolish this  gem of a building, only 13 years old and therefore without landmark status.  (The Folk Art Museum itself has moved to a smaller location at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue.)  Howls greeted MOMA’s announcement, and pleas were made to spare the Folk Art Museum building and its somber façade made of folded planes of hammered bronze, unique.  MOMA then reviewed its latest expansion plans, which included demolition of the little structure, but in January 2014 announced that it was simply impossible to save it; it would have to go.  As of now, it awaits the wrecking ball.  Bigger wins out again, but this time to very few cheers.

The Frick Collection

     The Museum of Modern Art is about as big time as you can get.  By way of contrast, the Frick Collection at East 70th Street and Fifth Avenue offers the charm of smallness and intimacy.  Housed in the Gilded Age mansion of industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), an associate of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, it includes works by Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Goya, Fragonard, El Greco, Holbein, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca, and many others, plus 18th-century French furniture and porcelains, Italian bronzes, and Limoges enamels.  What last drew me there was the chance to see the collection’s three Vermeers displayed side by side; it’s hard enough to find a Vermeer in this country, and to see three at once in the same room is rare indeed.  Though visitors are confined to the ground floor and its annexes -- a velvet rope blocks off the grandiose marble staircase leading tantalizingly to the forbidden second floor -- I managed to experience the ambience of Frick’s home and fell in love with the place all over again.  It reminds me of the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, another delightful relic of the Gilded Age and its moneyed art collectors, whose newly amassed fortunes let them snap up Old Masters still available, for a price, in Europe. 

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The Frick's Beaux Arts façade, facing Fifth Avenue.

    But the Frick, like MOMA, is receiving ever larger throngs of visitors and longs for greater space to accommodate them and expand its facilities.  In June 2014 it announced its master plan for a long-delayed expansion that would add 40,000 square feet of space and numerous much-needed amenities: a large new reception hall, a 220-seat auditorium, a special ground-floor exhibition gallery, a passageway connecting the collection to the adjoining six-story art reference library on East 71st Street, and – finally! -- access for visitors to the mansion’s second floor.  All this would be done carefully, integrating the new facilities architecturally with the original mansion and the additions done brilliantly by architect John Russell Pope in 1935 – additions so seamless and so harmonious that visitors think them part of the original structure.  The new addition’s limestone façade along East 70th Street will blend in with that of the original mansion and the Pope additions and offer a rooftop garden as well with views of Central Park and the West Side of Manhattan.  Respite all these changes, the Frick management assures the public that the Frick Collection will retain its gemlike quality and resonate with the comfortable grandeur of the Gilded Age.

     But will it?  Voices have been raised in opposition.  The proposed plan entails constructing a new tower on East 70th Street replacing a gated garden dating from 1977, the creation of British landscape architect Russell Page.  The garden, the Frick management reminds us, was never open to the public, but it can be viewed from the street and from the museum’s current reception hall.  It features a rectangular pool with floating lotus and white lilies in summer, surrounded by gravel paths and boxwood hedges.  It flowers almost year round with late-blooming crab apple and Kentucky yellowwood trees, clematis and hydrangea on trellises, and wisteria climbing up the wall.  “A masterpiece of restrained minimalism,” it has been called, setting the mansion apart and dappling it with shade: one of those minor miracles that the city has managed to squeeze into small spaces here and there, alleviating its cement and concrete massiveness with a touch of green.

     But more than the garden is at risk.  I and many love the Frick as it is, and don’t want it to join the ranks of museums remaking themselves for huge crowds and blockbuster shows where visitors stand six deep to admire the overpublicized marvels on display.  The Frick is small and should house shows that are similarly small; in my book, small is beautiful.  

      A friend of mine once worked at the Frick.  Here is his take on the Frick then and now:  “When I started working there in 1967 it was a quiet backwater housed in a discreet, if imposing, limestone mansion.  People were welcome to visit, if they really wanted to; in fact, admission was free.  But if nobody was asking them to come, and if they stayed away, so much the better.  What was on view was the Founder’s personal art collection, augmented now and then by purchases made from the Founder’s endowment by the Board of Trustees.  That was it.  The idea of a special, temporary exhibition was unheard of – no, anathema!  The loyal, respectful staff included many who had been there since the place opened to the public in the 1930s.  It was serene, and it made you feel good to be there.
     “Over the years the endowment began to shrink, and those in charge began to look elsewhere for the wherewithal to keep the place running.  Fundraisers were added to the staff, along with writers of grant applications, etc.  The Museum Shop grew from a closet (literally) to a bustling place of commerce.  The [indoor] Garden Court began to be rented out for wedding celebrations and bar mitzvahs.  The most crowd-pleasing traveling exhibitions were eagerly courted; my favorite was Fairies in Victorian Art (literally).

     “All of this snowballed, and now the goal is to draw in as many admission-payers as the building can hold, and then to add new space to bring in still more admission-payers.  And then still more.  And more.  Well, you can see what I think of the extension plans.”

     No, bigger is not always better.  Let the site adjoining MOMA hurl its needle-nosed high-rise skyward, but let the Frick try to retain something of the small-scale charm that it once radiated.  It’s now up to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.  The Frick will probably get something of what it wants, but maybe not all; time will tell.  I’m glad I knew it way back when its charm was still intact. 

     Me and the American Folk Art Museum: I am chagrinned to admit that I have never visited this museum; since low attendance was one of the ills causing it to move from its midtown location, I have contributed to its financial problems.  But in New York, with so many big-name museums with stellar collections, it’s easy to overlook the smaller ones, and that is what for years I have done.  Now, seeing some of its treasures online – ceramics, scrimshaw, weathervanes, paintings, furniture, quilts – I have vowed to rectify this omission by paying the museum a visit, and encourage others to do so as well.  Admission is free.  By way of comparison: MOMA: adults $25, seniors $18, students $14.  Metropolitan Museum of Art: adults $25, seniors $17, students $12 (recommended; you can get in for less).    Neue Galerie: $20, students and seniors $10.  Obviously, the Folk Art Museum is a rare bargain.

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American Folk Art Museum

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Bird of Paradise quilt, 1858-1863.  One of the museum's treasures that I hope to see soon.
American Folk Art Museum

     Me and gun control:  A child of the Midwest, I learned to fire a shotgun at age sixteen.  From my father, of course, since he was an avid hunter and fisherman, though I was not.  He kept his beloved shotguns in their cases under his bed, and it never occurred to me or my more adventurous brother to ever go near them in his absence.  He never forbade it, we simply couldn’t imagine doing it.  Fast-forward to today: A shooting instructor was accidentally shot and killed last Monday at a shooting range in Arizona while showing a nine-year-old girl how to use a Uzi submachine gun; he was standing next to her when she pulled the trigger and the recoil sent the gun out of her control.  No comment.

     My audience:  For both the week and the month, and sometimes for the day, this blog gets the most viewers, predictably, from the U.S., and after that, most unpredictably, from the Ukraine and Turkey.  And the post with the most viewers continues to be #43, Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo.  My conclusion:  People in many societies aren’t used to candid discussions of sex, least of all this subject, and so are irresistibly drawn to this post.

     Coming soon:  Panhandlers and hustlers of New York, including one who got $100,000 from the city.  After that, the smells of New York.  Let me know your favorites, pleasant and unpleasant, and I’ll include them; I’ve already got some lulus.

     ©  Clifford Browder  2014

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