MoMA is back. The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan reopens Saturday, revealing a sparkling new building and a broader interpretation of the past century or so of art.
After three years of construction - and a temporary relocation of its collection to the borough of Queens - MoMA is finally able to give Cézanne, Pollock, and Warhol more elbow room. The ambitious project, with an overall cost of $858 million (including $425 million for construction), is being met with praise and a bit of controversy as the museum celebrates its 75th anniversary.
"This is without question the most important development in American art museums since Sept. 11," says Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who toured the new building recently. "In a certain sense, MoMA accomplishing this gives us license to think big thoughts again. And to feel some degree of confidence that one can see those big thoughts realized."
For the first time, MoMA is devoting entire galleries to the work of contemporary artists - a more formal acknowledgement of the artists' place in the evolution of modern art. MoMA now has the space to display the large-scale works of those artists and to more fully develop its entire collection, considered the richest in the world.
"We've always been interested in contemporary art; we simply never had enough space to display even our own collection with any kind of intelligence or integrity," says Glenn Lowry, MoMA's director, at a recent press preview. "This is a museum that believes in the idea of modern art as an evolving tradition, an unfolding tradition that includes works of art from the late 19th century right to the present."
Plans for the redesign began in the late 1990s. It was clear to MoMA staff that the museum had outgrown its building - last expanded in 1984 - and its ability to do justice to its vast collection of some 150,000 objects in areas ranging from painting and sculpture to drawing, photography, and design. It also has 22,000 film- and media-related items.
For years, the museum has told a fairly linear story of modern art, attempting to trace its roots through smallish galleries in which people could move only in one direction - a "beads on a chain" configuration, as one curator puts it. "The architecture imposed a fixed order, and hence we were read as arguing for a singular narrative, a singular understanding of modern art," says Mr. Lowry.
Somehow, the idea of museum as laboratory - inspired by founding director, Alfred Barr - had to be reinforced. That's the model the new MoMA aims for, Lowry says, where ideas about modern art are suggested and debated in a less rigid way. In his view, the new building offers an opportunity for a more open-ended approach to the story. The galleries have multiple entrances and exits, he explains, allowing people to make their own connections and observations about the "interdiscipinarity" of modern art.
The museum's six floors are ordered in a way that's meant to get people to consider the contemporary art (floor two) first before they make their way up to floors four and five to see Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans" or Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night." The size of the open spaces means there's room to hang a helicopter, for example, and to show a 25-foot-tall sculpture titled "Broken Obelisk." Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi also incorporated windows and skylights into the design, to give visitors a visual break - with views of the sculpture garden, for example - and to remind people that they are in New York City.
Architecture critics have given the overhauled museum mixed reviews. "Grand and imposing" is how Mr. Benezra describes the once smallish edifice, whose exhibition space has increased from 85,000 square feet to 125,000 square feet. "The collections certainly feel much better," he says. "I think the curators have been able to think some new thoughts about their collections. I've been going to this museum for many, many years, and I saw works of art there that I've never seen before."
The public will get a chance to see for themselves starting Saturday, when admission is free for the day. After that, it will cost $20 to explore the building, which has entrances on both West 53rd and 54th Streets. That's a leap of 67 percent from its former $12 fee, making it the priciest of America's major art museums. Admission will be free to all children 16 and under, and to everyone on Friday nights between 4 and 8 p.m. College students pay $12, and senior citizens, $16. Still, some critics charge the museum with elitism.
"They should be aware it's not all celebration at their opening," says Dan Levenson, an artist who was protesting outside the 53rd Street entrance recently on behalf of a group he calls "Free MoMA." "I don't like their new marketing strategy," he says, arguing that the artwork in the museum is part of a collective cultural heritage and should be accessible to everyone.
MoMA officials and Benezra say the costs of running a museum are steep these days, and that there are only so many places private organizations can obtain funding. In the case of MoMA, each visitor costs the museum between $40 and $45.
"I wonder about all those people who are protesting, how much they spend when they go to a movie, when they go to a concert," says Lowry. "In an ideal world, obviously you want to keep the costs as minimal as possible, and I think our trustees have stretched enormously to essentially underwrite more than 50 percent of the actual cost of visiting this museum."
As the debate goes on, finishing touches are being made on the building, and curators say they will continue to make adjustments to the galleries. Benezra, who has experience with relocating, says that's natural.
"Moving into a new museum building is a bit like moving into a new house," he says. "[It] takes you a little bit of time to understand how the house works, how the museum works, where the furniture ought to go. And a good and talented staff such as MoMA has, you know it'll take them a year or two to really understand the building."