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seeing out loud

Saltz: This Renovation Plan Will Ruin MoMA, and the Only People Who Can Stop It Aren’t Trying

Concept sketch for the Museum of Modern Art.

On January 8, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry and the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro made public their scheme to redesign and expand MoMA. Since then, virtually no artists or architects, or art, design, or architecture critics, have lauded the plan. Nearly all the reaction has been negative. Yet no one’s raised a finger to do much of anything about it. We live in a time when power structures are impervious to and imperious about protest. Yet the Lowry–DS+R plan so irretrievably dooms MoMA to being a business-driven carnival that it feels like something really worth fighting against. Actions like this aren’t pie-in-the-sky or far-fetched. If 40 well-known artists whose work is in the collection signed a petition protesting the plans, it might have a real effect. This is MoMA’s Robert Moses moment, and five decades ago, artists were key to stopping his Lower Manhattan Expressway from being built. By the end of May, the problematic American Folk Art Museum on the MoMA site will likely be torn down, to be replaced with an even worse building for art. Then construction will begin. If this scheme is not stopped immediately, it’s going to go ahead.

So far, the public has seen a couple of drawings of the gleaming glass squash-court galleries that will replace AFAM. Elizabeth Diller says that these spaces are for “installations as well as performance, lectures, different kinds of events” and “certainly not paintings on a wall.” In her sentiment, I’m hearing that old 1980s painting-is-dead attitude rearing its head again. It’s been discredited everywhere else: We all know that painting is merely a medium, a place for the imagination, often a hybrid, and simply one of vision’s tools, not a doctrine.

In a briefing with the architects and Lowry in January, I saw a lot in addition to those glass boxes. The 53rd Street entrance is to be made double-height. The space for that mini-atrium will be reclaimed from the gallery upstairs. The architects call this space “a continuous, art-filled public amenity, free and open to the public.” This amenity will include two long corridors in the center of the museum, one of which ends in what Charles Renfro called an “architecturally significant staircase.” There will be places where crowds will be able to look at other crowds through cutouts, up and down staircases, in and out of restaurants. (Or maybe not. MoMA and its architects have deflected criticism with a two-pronged strategy. First came the museum’s reassurances that it is highly “self-critical.” This essentially says to critics, “Not to worry! We hate ourselves more than you hate us.” Liz Diller has taken to calling the comparatively few sketches that have been released a “progress report.” Lowry keeps saying the plans are “in flux.”)

As you move upstairs, there’ll be a very long, narrow second-floor gallery. It will be open at both ends and have a long glass wall facing 53rd Street. It’s a main thorough­fare between the 2004 Taniguchi building and the new tower by Jean Nouvel that will house some of the new museum space. This space is about traffic flow and crowd management and is nearly art-free, because nothing can hang on the glass wall. It’ll be made by reclaiming space from preexisting galleries.

Speaking of the Nouvel tower: Roughly 35,000 square feet will be added there, maybe a third of which, they told me, will be for the galleries for the pre-1980 permanent collection. Diller says she believes exhibition areas should be “flexible space” and “ought to be rewritable.” This, again, means no walls. I will not even try to figure the astonishing degree to which a developer profits from building above MoMA, far more than the museum benefits by being below. Had MoMA wished, it could probably have negotiated tens of thousands of extra square feet in each of these buildings.

Lowry says the plan is meant to be “enlivening and participatory”—code for theatrical, performative, fun. MoMA and its architects are redrawing the aesthetic map, annexing and partitioning space from one kind of art to make room for others that are lately deemed chic. This ethos represents, we’re told, a “significant shift in the priorities of the institution” and is meant to serve “new curatorial objectives” and “alternative cultural programming.” It privileges live-­action events, performance, entertainment, and almost anything that doesn’t just sit still to be looked at. MoMA wants these new spaces to be places where people experience things with one another, in crowds, corridors, or little theaters. The new MoMA is designed to allow for an ever-increasing number of events whose primary purpose is to produce little hits of serotonin and dopamine. I love a lot of this kind of stuff. But art that just hangs on a wall or sits in space can take a hundred years to understand; some appears stable but is constantly changing its meanings. Ironically enough, early modernism was a major factor in getting the world to accept performative art, and now it’s being shoved out of the limelight to make room for its descendant.

Perhaps MoMA can heal itself. Other museums faced with similarly serious issues are currently taking bold paths and trying. The Whitney is divesting itself of its Madison Avenue building for a new home downtown. The Met is addressing its shortcomings in the art of the last century and will soon occupy the Whitney’s old home for eight years. Sitting on some of the most valuable real estate on Earth, MoMA could sell its West 53rd and West 54th Street properties, take the astronomical profits, and build out an enormous warehouse on the far West Side, perhaps ten stories high, with full-block spaces for sprawling new projects, allowing it to finally showcase its unrivaled collection and at the same time be the carnival it seems intent on being. If the institution is wedded to midtown, it should turn its very large volume of offices and meeting rooms, its library and education department, over to gallery space. These functions could be moved off-site (some to the AFAM building, given that so many people insist on keeping it). Or MoMA could convert its atrium into four floors of galleries. Or simply commit to adding space only for the permanent collection in this rebuild.

All these partial solutions involve putting art first, and Glenn Lowry isn’t doing that. (He told me he loves the atrium.) He’s going with the most efficient, least resistant computational business model, deploying a compendium of predictable, conformist architectural and cultural ideas all aimed at giving us a sort of cultural utopia. Never mind that the word utopia means no place. That is exactly what MoMA is creating for art: The greatest collection of modernism on Earth has been relegated to rotating storage. If the wrecking ball swings in May, our beautiful garden of modernism will become another Penn Station.

*This article appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: LLER SCOFIDIO + RENFRO/COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK.