Moma has not only defined the idea of the modern art museum, it has sustained New York as the defining modern city. So why does its monumental redesign make it look like a mausoleum?by Mark Irving / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
This November, the largest, grandest and richest modern art museum in the world reopens after a two and a half year closure to allow for an architectural expansion expected to cost up to $858m. The project to reshape the Museum of Modern Art, located between 54th and 53rd street in midtown Manhattan, is pharaonic in scale. At the hands of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, it has become twice its former size. The revamped museum offers 50 per cent more gallery space (125,000 sq ft), an enlarged sculpture garden, a new lobby and a set of column-free exhibition spaces specifically designed to accommodate displays of ever vaster works of contemporary art.
Moma (while there are other Museums of Modern Art, this museum has long taken sole ownership of the acronym) possesses the most significant collection of its kind internationally: more than 100,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, design objects, architectural models and drawings; 14,000 films and 4m film stills; more than 200,000 books and periodicals. Moma’s magnetic pull over the dreams of donors, curators, artists, dealers and visitors, even before this latest building bonanza, was unrivalled. For some, this alone is cause for suspicion: “Moma’s aura is in direct proportion to its efficiency of manipulation,” the architect Rem Koolhaas has said. For others, the verdict is less sinister: “Moma has long served as an American metonym of modern art, with the history of the one often charted in the other,” the historian Hal Foster has written. Either way, because of the stakes involved, whatever Moma does has repercussions for galleries everywhere else. More than just a museum, it has become the crucible in which the idea of the modern has been formed.
Seventy-five years ago, when Moma was established by a few enthusiastic philanthropists on the 12th floor of the Heckscher building at 730 Fifth Avenue, the idea that the new could be as exciting as the old was itself radical. In 1929, most museum directors believed that the past – a place filled with gilded echoes of long-dead Mediterranean civilisations – was more important and beautiful than the present. Modernity itself was in its infancy. Van Alen’s Chrysler building, that hypodermic shot into the future, was begun the previous year; the Empire State building was still just a dream; neon was tracing out the New York skyline for the first time.