Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Architecture Takes Some Prisoners: MoMA And Its Audience

It was Blixa Bargeld's birthday earlier this week, which makes for an excellent opportunity to post one of my favorite Einstürzende Neubauten song, Architektur Ist Geiselnahme, which means roughly "architecture takes [some] hostages".

If you live in the United States and are somehow interested in modern and contemporary art, you've heard about the new scandal du jour: there's a new expansion design for NYC's venerable MoMA. As usual with these kinds of things, people have their knickers in a twist because we all hate change and we all love to have opinions. To sum it up shortly, for my very numerous European readers (ahem) people are upset because:

 1) the plan calls for razing the now long-defunct Folk Art Museum whose very costly new building caused its collapse and financial ruin but hey it's been built by famous architects so it's a shame it should be demolished.
2) The new design looks "corporate".
3) People who used to visit MoMA in the 1980s had an intimate experience and fuck those tourists coming en masse to the museum, they spoil the real art lovers' aesthetic nirvana or what have you.
4) Because whatever.

Of course viewed from Brussels WHERE WE DON'T EVEN HAVE A MUSEUM OF MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART AT ALL (sorry for shouting, this is the only Western capital that doesn't have one anymore) this looks like an amusing little local problem nobody really cares about, but you know, what with NYC sporting itself as the capital of the free world and so forth, we can see a few points worth raising that have very little to do with the quality of the architecture of the proposed expansion.  But they are shared by many museums around the world, whether they house art or science collections, because everybody has the same problems. Namely, collections augment and so does the museums audience, and museums need to expand their space to fill their mission.

1) So, what upsets the US folks? The demolition of the Folk Art Museum, which I see as rather hypocritical because most people had never set foot inside (if they had, maybe the museum would still be with us) and as several of my friends who actually have visited it say, it was a shitty space to look at art. Now, re: the quality of the building itself, I cannot judge but I didn't find it that great myself that it should be preserved at all costs.
I've seen some ludicrous arguments that "MoMA's mission being of preserving great art etc. it should also preserve architecture". Yes, I understand and I think I might have said the same type of idiotic thing myself in some old post or two on here, and on principle I like the idea but in reality, if museums had these types of resources we'd live in Utopialand where nobody goes hungry, inequality is eradicated and we've preserved the environment from our own follies. And believe me I'd love to live in that world. Also, I want a pony.
More to the point, I've seen arguments that maybe the architects could have preserved and reused the building in their redesign, but if they didn't I guess it's likely that  it was too costly and complicated and also tricky as far as using the maximum footprint possible for the new building.
In addition, I'd like to point out to proponents of this argument that the result would likely be a jumble of mismatched buildings rending the interior layout extremely impractical both for the purpose of the museum (showing art legibly ) and of its audience (finding their way in the resulting layout). If you want an example of a museum wrestling with this very same issue, look no further than LACMA and its complicated campus.

2) The new design looks corporate, it looks like a giant shopping mall. Yes. So did the last redesign.
Is it an improvement or something worse? I honestly cannot tell and I think 95% of us who are not architects cannot either. Now, quick question: name some museums that you think have a great-looking architecture, which one pops up first? Yes, we have a winner! The Guggenheim in Bilbao. Now, when was the last time you heard of a fabulous exhibition they had initiated? How about their collection, how world class is it?
Yes, I thought so.
People go to the Gugg Bilbao for the great architecture, no question about it, but not for what's inside. Which is a bit of a pity for an art museum (or any museum), if you ask me.
The truth is, folks, that most museums, including the non-art ones, tend to be the victims of shit architecture. Either it's some trendy world-famous architect having a wet dream and pooping up a giant spectacular turd with leaky roofs, impossible to heat and cool down galleries that are improper to display art, or some totally bland, boring, unobtrusive building that may or may not be shit at preserving and showing art as well, but might not come in the way of looking at it. I don't know about you but when I'm looking at art I don't really care about having some cantilevered something or other obstructing the view or making the space impractical to put art in (the New Museum is very high on my shit list in that regard).
Anyway, maybe the new redesign is bland and boring. Maybe it brings some unity to the overall museum, I don't know, and I feel I won't know until the thing is build and I visit it.

3) People who used to visit MoMA in the 1980s had an intimate experience and fuck those tourists coming en masse to the museum, they spoil the real art lovers' aesthetic nirvana or what have you.
Are you fucking kidding me?
I've seen this argument posted over and over by various people on Facebook. I'm not going to repeat the old saw that, you know, we fought this avant-garde battle to bring real art to the masses or something. Nah, all we wanted was to have the museum all to ourselves so we could commune in ecstatic transcendence with the art or something. Never mind we're being condescending to the museum's audience which, as we know, is always and forever composed of 99% great unwashed fuckwads and 1% true art lovers with credentials, good taste and intelligence, the elite. I know, I am a fucking elitist myself. I like fucking with an elite, I meant.
Truly, I love to have an intimate experience and looking at art and having an artwork all to myself. Most everybody does. Ask all the foreign visitors lining up to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, they would love to have an unobstructed view of it.
But I've also been a tourist (the horror!) visiting world-class museums and patiently waiting in line to pay my admission and come see masterpieces I had only seen in reproduction before. And the little-known artworks that are never reproduced, and the retrospective exhibitions of artists whose works I've only seen scattered here and there, and paying a visit to a bookstore where I can buy catalogs that are impossible or too expensive to find abroad. I'm sure most art lovers lamenting the old MoMA experience can understand that I, too, mourn the old Louvre of yore and I'm really pissed off to see NewYorkers gawking at Fragonard and Boucher paintings, asking stupid questions and obstructing my view for about two mega-long minutes.

So I understand the sense of loss, but you see, depending on the years, MoMA's total audience hovers between 2.5 and 3 million people a year. 60% of them being foreign visitors*. To continue to have "an intimate experience" would mean turning these tourists away at the gates, as well as the money they spend in NYC . And how do you propose doing this? Jacking up the entrance fee to $200 a pop? Yeah, I don't think so either. Conversely, if the audience were to decline significantly, it would also mean a decline in funding and revenue that could imperil the museum's budget. Do we  really want that?

"… yet another Guggenheim"

 I could go at length to explain that when you have such a significant mass of tourist and local bodies to safely move around inside a building, you need to sacrifice a bit of the intimacy and a lot of the magic in the name of the artworks security. Which actually comes first to people who work at museums, and the audience second, but we always have pesky fireman marshall regulations to contend with. Some of them determining the size of the rooms you put your artworks in so you can evacuate all your audience should a catastrophe happen.
 I could add that these ugly escalators everybody hate because they're so ugly are actually the fastest way to move all these visitors up and down the building,  making sure the line outside doesn't stretch for too long (it does but what can you do when your building is located in the middle of a busy city block with other buildings around? You can't really have entrances on 4 sides of the building to accelerate the flow). So yes maybe the soul of the institution does gets diluted a lot in the need to get the 3 millions people flocking to see art at a world class museum in and out of the building safely.

Maybe the building looks corporate.
Maybe it looks like a giant shopping mall.
Maybe the building doesn't look spectacular.
Maybe the building doesn't feel homey.
Maybe the building isn't an artwork itself.

4) Because whatever. Yes, what's up with that? Oh, the usual. Actually, no. Not our old usual.

To which I can only say that in an era when the arts (all genres combined) are said to have brought in more audience  in the United States last year than sports events, and more revenue in France than all the proceeds from the automotive industry last year as well**, we have to contend with a new model/paradigm Alfred Barr would have never imagined when he was at the helm of the museum.
Over the last couple of years of so I've read a lot of things about how "the market" had "destroyed/changed" the "art world", but very little about the fact that art in general, but mostly modern and contemporary art have found a new mass audience, an audience none of us could have ever anticipated when we were entrenched in the Culture Wars, being told what we were doing had no mass appeal and wasn't worthy of interest and funding.
The audience is here now, we need to deal with it whether we like it or not, and crying over how we had it better when everybody hated us won't change the fact that people are now flocking  museums en masse, which strikes me as more desirable than, say, having them watching Fox News, reading stupid tabloids or gunning down each others in movie theaters and elsewhere.
Maybe we should rejoice that people are finally being interested in art, even if it means we have to suffer bland architecture to accommodate their large presence inside museums.

*Many thanks to my friend C. who provided me with the numbers.
** I've seen numbers around the Christmas holidays for both countries but I can't remember where, so this is a "top of my head" info that needs verification/sources.

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