A museum employee walks up a stairway framed by Andy Warhol's cow wallpaper at the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research building at the Museum of Modern Art. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Imagine that the Guggenheim Museum decided to trash a Kandinsky because it clashed with the office décor. Or that the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent one of the Yves Saint Laurent dresses in its Costume Institute to Goodwill because hemlines are lower this season. Or that the New York Public Library decided that an unwieldy Audubon “double elephant” folio should go to the recycling pile because it’s too big for the shelf.
Luckily, you can’t. Such things do happen, perhaps, when remarkable works come by accident into the hands of people unaware of their value—but not when they belong to museums, whose mission it is to preserve important works and cultivate their greater appreciation. Yet something similar is about to happen on West 53rd Street, where the Museum of Modern Art has announced its intention to raze the adjacent building that formerly housed the American Folk Art Museum, now a possession of MoMA. This compelling, idiosyncratic and admittedly imperfect structure was completed in 2001 by the much-lauded firm of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, whose other credits include the new premises of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. The Folk Art Museum building has earned kudos and many awards, including the American Institute of Architects National Honor Award in 2003. Herbert Muschamp rhapsodized in The New York Times over a design that “delves deeply into the meaning of continuity: the regeneration of streets and cities; the persistence and mingling of multiple memories in the changing polyglot metropolis; and the capacity of art to transcend cultural categories even as it helps define them.” This passion-inspiring building is just the sort of object that a museum with a great architecture department would be expected to protect.
The storage rooms of museums are packed with works too mediocre to be exhibited yet of too much historical interest to de-accession. Buildings can’t be mothballed, but they are also more adaptable than art in frames or vitrines. They can be modified without being destroyed, which is more than can be said of a Kandinsky. Accordingly, prominent achitects including Steven Holl and Richard Meier have called for MoMA to reconsider its decision. The Folk Art Museum building is not without problems, mostly stemming from the tiny footprint Williams and Tsien had to work with; the galleries can be cramped, and would not be ideal for large-scale contemporary art. But they are far more graceful than those the Tokyo-based firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) designed for the similarly narrow New Museum, which opened in 2007.
Mine is not necessarily a view that everyone can accept: to many observers, the Folk Art building seems, like all too many museums these days, to be a grand-scale sculpture that fails to showcase the art it was built to house. But if that is MoMA’s opinion, then it should say so, which could help stimulate a worthwhile public discussion on the aesthetic of architecture. And even then, an open-minded assessment of the building’s shortcomings might be something the museum’s architects could mine for a considered renovation under their own direction. Instead, as an open letter from the Architectural League of New York notes, “The Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive twelve-year-old building.”