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Folk Art Museum Should Not Be Whacked by Big MoMA

American Folk Art Museum
The interior of the American Folk Art museum, with a miniature Empire State Building on the left. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have brought natural light into the museum, similarly to architect Brad Cloepfil's layout for the Museum of Arts and Design. Photographer: Michael Moran/OTTO via Bloomberg

In a flabbergasting act of cultural vandalism, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is set to destroy the building next door because it doesn’t look right. It doesn’t demonstrate acceptable esthetics.

The American Folk Art Museum opened on 53rd street only 12 years ago and closed in 2011, its finances in shambles.

MoMA, forever expanding, purchased the building the same year so the Folk Art museum could pay off the $32 million loan it had taken out to finance its growth.

Some critics think the assertive, fortressy architecture of the Folk hardly helped the museum find a happy audience. It’s by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien whose Barnes Foundation opened last year in Philadelphia to a mostly positive reception.

The Folk’s facade, a six-story shield wrought in rough-finished tinted white bronze, starkly contrasts with MoMA’s polished glass walls.

I’m sympathetic with those who find the exterior off-putting. Inside, planes of glass, metal, and concrete competed with humble art never intended for such an exalted setting.

But these flaws should not be deal breakers.

Engagingly Mysterious

I give a lot of credit to the Folk Art’s architects for trying to escape the typical tyranny of stacked galleries.

Tall, skinny museums are especially difficult to curate with elevators and stairs breaking up the flow.

Williams and Tsien blurred those boundaries by turning wide stairways into display opportunities. They wrapped a canyon of space whose skylight drew us ever higher.

It was an engagingly mysterious way to move through the museum. Along the way, we would pause in front of beautiful and odd objects: skyscraper models made out of hair combs, surreal drawings made with twigs, soot and spit, or the fantasy world of outsider artist Henry Darger.

Unfortunately, the Folk Art Museum had a lot of problems on the curatorial and board level. Shows failed to attract much buzz; board members didn’t raise enough money to retire the construction debt. (The museum has resettled in its former location near Lincoln Center, a modest, affordable space.)

So now MoMA, a museum with a huge endowment and a troubling sense of empire, wants to raze the place and engulf the site in more antiseptic galleries.

Eccentric Drama

The Folk Art is far from the only museum vexed by verticality enforced by New York’s costly real estate.

Recall the long-vanished Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle, where architect Edward Durell Stone tried to ease the floor transitions with a spiral of gently stepping galleries. It was impossible to curate.

It lives anew as the Museum of Arts and Design, where architect Brad Cloepfil, of Allied Works, reduced the number of levels and brought in natural light beautifully. Yet the layout is hardly what any museum would choose if it had an alternative.

MoMA officials have said that they cannot gracefully incorporate the Tsien and Williams building. The floors are slightly mismatched and it’s not sleek and glossy.

This is a pitiful rationalization. MoMA would put the museum into its collection if it fit into a gallery.

The Folk Art, with its domestic scale and its sublime idiosyncrasy, would add a bit of drama to MoMA’s antiseptic white-box galleries.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Greg Evans on film.

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