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A First Look at the Queens Museum’s World of Tomorrow

The Queens Museum, a sometime stepchild of New York’s cultural life, has just reopened after a $69 million renovation that doubled its space (to 105,000 square feet) and aims at doubling attendance (to 200,000 visitors a year). Art critic Jerry Saltz and architecture critic Justin Davidson toured it together.

Justin Davidson: Jerry, I’ve driven by on the Grand Central Parkway hundreds of times, and I never paid much attention to the low, gray building lurking by the side of the road. Now it’s impossible to miss. That new polka-dot glass screen gleams even on a cloudy day, and at night it glows all different colors.

Jerry Saltz: Those LEDs come off sort of mall-like. But that’s the sort of Learning From Las Vegas, we-wanna-look-vernacular style this building seems to be going for.

Davidson: I know that artists will be able to program the façade, but really it’s a highbrow billboard begging commuters to pay attention. And right on top a big new sign reads QUEENS MUSEUM. Not “of Art” anymore—just “Museum.” Are they trying to tell us something?

Saltz: That they think that the word art will scare people off? That it’s too snooty? Me, I think art is open and for anyone; it’s just not for everyone—but I’ve only ever called it the Queens Museum. From the look of the first shows, we can assume it’ll be more of what it was. Which is about inclusiveness and identity, and a focus on artists and creative immigrant communities living in Queens. I love the idea of other “identities” as long as we don’t just get boring, generic “identity art.” Does the architecture suggest a new direction to you?

Davidson: It suggests the tyranny of vagueness. The building, designed to be the New York City Pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair, is a long, barrel-vaulted shed, with austere colonnades on both long sides and a few luxury touches, like the limestone and the scalloping on the columns. It was never a wonderful building, but it troubles me that the shorthand for a renovation is to slap a layer of glass on the side facing the road and call it new. It doesn’t help that visitors pass beneath a steel-plate portal with a Homeland Security feel. The other façade, which opens onto the park, is more promising. At least they’ve removed that appalling cylindrical portal that looked like an airlock or a blast chamber.

Saltz: I probably like the old Robert Moses Egomaniacal Modernism look better. That was old-fashioned tyranny, whereas this is bland. I will say, though, that it seems to convey “Queens is the new Brooklyn,” and that’s great news. Kids are opening up to living in affordable dumps in almost all the boroughs. This spreading-­out of the younger populations is a game-changer. It’s already injecting tremendous amounts of creative energy into the city. This building doesn’t reflect any of that energy to me, but at least it broadcasts, “Hey, come here. We’re big and new and shiny. This could be fun.” Too bad it couldn’t also be a good-looking building.  

Davidson: So you think people will be attracted just because it’s new? What happens when it’s not new anymore?

Saltz: You know, things have gotten so bad with contemporary museum architecture that I almost don’t care anymore what the outside looks like. The single most important thing is how the interior space of a museum works or doesn’t work for art. Can you tell me why architects love huge, open, useless vanilla spaces? Instead of this soaring, double-height atrium, the entire second story could have been used for art or cultural artifacts or whatever the hell this museum might want to install. Why do architects give us such terrible space for art?

Davidson: I don’t always agree with you on this issue, but I do here. The architects at Grimshaw have tied themselves in knots to express the idea of openness. That means lots of glass, high ceilings, few walls, and plenty of space unencumbered by, you know, art. It’s the loft principle extended to institutions, and I find that incredibly literal. The Metropolitan Museum is none of those things, yet it’s plainly welcoming to everyone. MoMA follows all those rules, and it feels forbidding. What makes a museum open is when admission is cheap or free. Other than that, I think you can go to town putting up walls, and people still aren’t going to feel like they’re in jail. If what you want is a place for kids to come in and start drawing or making things, then do you really want a huge atrium with polished concrete floors, so that yells of glee go ricocheting around like trapped birds?

Saltz: And what’s with that idiotic space-eating twisty staircase? And the obligatory glass-skywalk thing?

Davidson: The staircase is the single thing I object to most. I think it’s meant to look weightless and sleek and flowing, something Captain Kirk might have jogged up in 1966. In fact, though, it pivots around a brawny steel tripod, and its glass stairs sit on thick black-lined brackets. The workmanship is sloppy, too: The end of the handrail looks like it was finished with a hacksaw. 

What do you think of the programming? One centerpiece of the opening weekend was a Bulgarian collective making pickles, and another was an outdoor baking event by the director of Bread and Puppet Theater. Do you have any qualms that in opening up to the community, as the executive director Tom Finkelpearl is so eager to do, the museum risks some of its credibility as a serious art institution?

Saltz: Someone baking bread, or a collective pickling things, is no more egalitarian than a sculpture sitting in a room. In some ways a performance is more exclusive; if you weren’t lucky enough to see it, tough. Still, I’ve got a lot of faith in Finkelpearl and his curators. In the next couple of weeks, they’ve got some performance restaging the United Nations, which sounds pretty great.

Davidson: I hope so, but I’m afraid this renovation is the heir to an old tradition. Flushing Meadows–Corona Park is a great ash heap of disappointments. I take it that you’re more optimistic?

Saltz: Architecture notwithstanding, I am. Something great may unfurl in this next phase at this would-be great “art” museum.          

*This article originally appeared in the November 25, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
 

Photos: Scott Rudd/Courtesy of the Queens Museum; Scott Rudd/Courtesy of the Queens Museum