MoMA: A Needless Act of Destruction

Giles Ashford
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art building, 1997-2001

The only surprising thing about the Museum of Modern Art’s announcement in April that it intends to demolish Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum of 1997–2001—an architectural gem that abuts the Modern’s campus on Manhattan’s West 53rd Street—to make way for yet another MoMA addition is that this deplorable decision took so long to occur. When in 2011 the Folk Art Museum was compelled to sell its decade-old building because of the worldwide economic crash that had caused its default on $32 million in bonds that financed the $18.4 million scheme, seasoned observers fully expected that the superb structure’s days were numbered.

Some commentators unfairly portrayed this debacle as the comeuppance of a quirky little institution’s overweening ambition. At a time when all cultural and educational institutions faced similar difficulties, MoMA’s own $425 million expansion scheme designed by Yoshio Taniguchi did not founder thanks to the emergency measures resorted to by some of its more deep-pocketed supporters. One venerable trustee is said to have anted up what he had expected would be a posthumous bequest.

Williams and Tsien’s physically small (a mere forty feet wide and eighty-five feet high) but architecturally powerful incursion into MoMA’s presumed turf has long been known to be a thorn in the side of Glenn D. Lowry, the Modern’s director since 1995. Years before Lowry’s tenure and the Drang nach Westen he is so closely associated with, the Modern’s endlessly munificent benefactor Blanchette Rockefeller had deeded two narrow townhouses further down West 53rd Street to the fledgling Museum of American Folk Art (as it was then called). She never could have imagined how keenly MoMA would come to rue her well-intentioned gift.

As both museums began to finalize their grand construction plans in the mid-1990s, MoMA offered to swap the Folk Art plot for an equivalent area that it owned somewhat further west, a deal that would have given the Modern uninterrupted adjacency. But because the Folk Art site is aligned with a mid-block pedestrian mall that links 53rd Street with 52nd Street to the south—a configuration that Folk Art Museum officials felt made their institution look more important—they ill-advisedly rejected the trade, which likely heightened MoMA’s seemingly insatiable territorial imperative in the long run.

Lowry, after all, had been hired to serve as a sort of wartime consigliere for the Modern’s expansion initiative because, as the museum’s longtime head, the mild-mannered Richard Oldenburg, confided to several trustees, he did not want to take on that daunting campaign. Even before his arrival in Midtown Manhattan, Lowry was known as a museum executive who brooked no opposition. As director of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from 1990 to 1995, he laid off nearly half of that museum’s staff when the institution’s state-financed budget was cut by more than one…

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