As I toured the Museum of Modern Art with Liz Diller, partner in Diller Scofido + Renfro, the architectural firm responsible for this latest MoMA makeover, I felt empathy for her. This surprised me. I’ve been critical in the past about the project to remake MoMA, writing that the Diller Scofido + Renfro plan meant the museum was “irretrievably doomed to being a business-driven carnival.” And last month, in his apt assessment of the renovation’s phase one, my colleague Justin Davidson called the building “the sort of place your grandparents might have sat thumbing Life magazines while waiting to board a Pan American flight to Havana.” He concluded that in the future, MoMA may end up looking “more like a gorgeously detailed transit facility.”
I had my meeting and first visit to the space the following week. Within hours I knew I had been right about one thing when I first criticized the plan for emphasizing temporary exhibition, performance, and social spaces: Even with the additional square footage slated to be built, the original issue of the dearth of usable space for the permanent collection will continue to be a serious problem. At one point during the initial presentation (that included several museum bigs), director Glenn Lowry said “MoMA is trying not to take itself too seriously.” I answered back, “But the rest of us can’t be blamed for taking MoMA very seriously.” Then came a tour of the new spaces. This consisted of only Diller, me, my wife, and MoMA’s great chief curator Ann Temkin, who has brilliantly wrestled with the spatial problems since 2004, finding ways here and there to get more of the collection on view and including more art by artists of color, women, and lesser-knowns. It was intimate, casual. That midweek summer day as the four of us snaked our way through the museum to the new additions, MoMA was a like an overflowing airport. Lines backed up at ticket counters, galleries were packed with those elbowing their way to works of art, and others navigating their way to different parts of the museum.
MoMA has been this broken spatial matrix since November 4, 2004, the day it reopened with great fanfare in the gleaming Taniguchi building. What was totally different on this intimate tour, however, was Diller. Where the hour before in the meeting she was talking in the same inscrutable corporate jargon I’d objected to when Diller Scofido + Renfro unveiled their initial renovation plans, now, here, touring the museum with just the four of us — and often just the two of us together — everything she said and did made me feel we were now on the same ship lost at sea. Although she did keep referring to the museum’s “testosterone,” we seemed to share the same cultural sorrow about the museum’s plight; and it seemed clear to me we shared a mutual understanding of institution’s physical malfunction and the estranged condition of the permanent collection. And the audience. Now that the firm had actually laid hands on the full depths of the problems, even these most-heady architects stopped talking about “interconnectivity” and “auto-critique.” Instead they were acting, and sounding, much more like practical problem-solvers. Diller spoke frankly about trying to apply fixes here and there, somehow improve the museum’s condition, widen hallways, provide access, address bottlenecks, open galleries, remove walls, reveal an old window, spread out the 3 million annual visitors, and maybe create resting space for harried viewers. Her every gesture and glance seemed to say, “We tried everything and ran into the same problems. We’re just attempting to make the place more pleasant.”
The trip was important to me on very deep levels. I still don’t like the firm’s theatricalizing and spectacle-oriented work, but Diller and I let our guards down with one another and recognized our shared frustrations. More importantly, I finally see now what I refused to see in 2004 and have been fighting for the 13 years. Even with Lowry & Co. seeming to see what needs immediate fixing, with Lowry and I getting along fine even with our disagreements, I am finally forced to concede that the same upper leadership that created the problem in 2004 should never have been allowed to be the ones to try to fix it. The chances that they would succeed were tiny. MoMA’s fate had already been effectively sealed for its near future.
This not a farewell to the museum. Art is much stronger than bad space; put art anywhere, provide a little light and it can change your life. Moreover, the damage done to MoMA is not at irreparable. One day perhaps the museum might do what the Whitney and the New Museum did — reinvent itself in another location. Indeed, some of the better Diller Scofidio + Renfro fixes echo things done in the Whitney.
And despite the New Museum creating claustrophobic space, it continues to do stellar shows. As for me, I still harbor the fantasy that eventually the gleaming half of the museum that MoMA built in 2004 for offices and other internal functions will someday be transformed into majestic contiguous space for the permanent collection. Or that each floor of the atrium will be filled in and converted to space for the collection.
So I give in. This next version of the museum is going to be the best version we’ll get for a while. Which is okay. I can’t live without this museum. I love it. It’s where we all come from — and need to return in order to spawn new ideas of modernism. It does the canon honor; some of its many curators are finding ways to buck MoMA’s uptightness, work with the space as is, and are making great shows that aren’t just preapproved taste. The 2016 Kai Althoff survey and current Louise Lawler exhibition look like the first shows ever at MoMA that feel like they were in the artists’ hands and not an administration brain trust. We can all find times and days when MoMA is less crowded. There we can commune again with the ancestors. I now give up my dream that in my lifetime this peerless collection will be fully revealed to us in one sweeping, simultaneous, chronological way or in multiple, massive deep dives into lesser known realms. I accept that MoMA’s view of modernism’s past will continue to resemble shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave: What we see is only the mere appearance of things — not actual reality. That reality must remain the dream of future generations who will “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”