Even after selling its beautiful Williams-Tsien building to MoMA for $31.2 million, the American Folk Art Museum is still in financial peril. Trustees are considering whether the organization can reasonably pay its staff and cover the cost of housing, conserving, and insuring one of the world’s finest collections of American Folk Art. According to the NYT, one option is to give the collection over the The Smithsonian and Brooklyn Museum, an act that would require approval of the State attorney General and Board of Education. AFAM representatives have been in communications with The Smithsonian for several months.
From the NYT:
The folk art museum’s situation is a stark warning of what can happen when a museum overreaches in constructing a new home. Founded in 1961, the museum survived some early near-death experiences. When it decided to build a permanent home, it engaged high-profile architects and borrowed the $32 million by issuing bonds through New York City’s Trust for Cultural Resources, a public benefit corporation that helps major cultural institutions borrow money for capital projects.
Some critics have attributed the museum’s troubles to its architecture, saying that it was unwelcoming and did not display the art and artifacts attractively. To be sure, the museum never drew the crowds it had projected in estimates made during the planning process, or received enough contributions to support its interest payments. It was the first institution that borrowed through the trust to default on its debt.
Addendum: ARTINFO just published a piece on this very issue! Check out Can the Folk Art Museum Be Saved? A Look at Three Endgame Scenarios.
From NYT Arts Beat:
Lovers of folk art have just a week left to visit the American Folk Art Museum at its home on West 53rd Street before it closes its doors there for good. Struggling under a heavy load of debt, the museum recently sold the building to the Museum of Modern Art. On Thursday it said its last day in the building would be July 8. The museum will remain in operation in its much smaller branch at 2 Lincoln Square, where it currently has a show of quilts from the collection. MoMA has not yet said what it plans to do with the building, which was designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and opened in 2001. A spokeswoman for the folk art museum, Susan Flamm, said the museum would have 90 days to vacate the building after the sale closes, which she said would happen in mid-July.
I’m still a skosh upset by the American Folk Art Museum‘s decision to sell their gorgeous building on 53rd street to the greedy behemoth that is the Museum of Modern Art. But let’s hear from a few folks who have a little more clout, shall we?
Wall Street Journal contributor and Culturegrrrl author Lee Rosenbaum says:
My guess is that MoMA will eventually knock down the failed museum’s building and add the land (and air rights) to the Nouvel construction project, if the developer, Hines, should eventually decide to proceed. A MoMA spokesperson informed me: “The details for how the building will be used have not been determined, though we expect to use it for exhibition space.”
Rosenbaum agree’s with the New York Magazine writer Jerry Saltz that AFAM’s failing was its design:
Despite the many rave reviews the 30,000-square-foot building received when it opened in December 2001, it was immediately clear to many that the building was not only ugly and confining, it was also all but useless for showing art — especially art as visionary as this museum’s.
UGH! PEOPLE! I DISAGREE WITH YOU SO MUCH THAT I AM USING ALL CAPS!
At least my one-time instructor Justin Davidson charged in like a white knight to right Saltz’s wrong:
Let’s start with the obvious: In order to construct the building that opened in 2001, the museum crippled itself with $32 million in debt and has defaulted on the loan. That’s not an architectural misdeed; it’s terrible fiscal stewardship. Blaming the designers is like faulting Mercedes-Benz for making such lovely cars that minimum-wage workers go bankrupt buying them.
I have always found the Folk Art Museum’s facade an alluring exception to the tough sleekness of midtown (and of the Museum of Modern Art down the block). The folded metallic panels have a textured, tactile, handmade feel, just like much of the art inside.
I agree! My February review of the AFAM building was actually written for Davidson’s class.
Another Instructor or mine and revered design writer, Alexandra Lange, wrote:
Herbert Muschamp’s New York Times review heralded the building as the beginning of New York’s post-9/11 rebirth. But in a spatial sense, the writing was on the wall for the building the minute MoMA’s expansion opened in 2004.
Of course the OTHER move on everybody’s mind right now is the Met’s lease of the current Whitney Museum while the Whitney continues construction of its new building on The High Line.
Its like everyone’s switching dates on prom night!
The beautiful Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed building of the American Folk Art Museum turned 10 this year but will apparently fall into the clutches of the ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art.
From a MoMA memo sent to their staff this week (thanks, Will!):
The American Folk Art Museum recently approached The Museum of Modern Art regarding its decision to sell its building at 45 West 53 Street, as MoMA has the right of first refusal on the building and property. Much thought was given to this opportunity, and after careful consideration we have agreed to purchase the building and property. The decision was approved unanimously by our Board of Trustees at today’s meeting. This mutually beneficial arrangement will provide critical funding for the American Folk Art Museum, which we understand will concentrate its exhibitions and programs at its Lincoln Square location. It also will provide additional space for The Museum of Modern Art. More details will be available in the coming months.
The AFAM has been struggling to pay back the $32 million debt they took on in order to build their metal-clad home. But even after the wild, unequivocal success of their Armory Quilt Show, they’ve decided to pack-up and out, retreating to their relatively miniscule 5,000 square foot space near Lincoln Center.
Besides break my heart, what will the MoMA do with this extraordinary acquisition? They might tear it down.
Today I popped over to the American Folk Art Museum‘s presentation of Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts and was BLOWN AWAY. This stellar exhibition displayed 650 red and white quilts from the private collection of Joanna S. Rose.
Walking into The Armory’s 55,000-square-foot drill hall was on par with entering a gothic cathedral but instead of stained glass punctuating an inky void, hundreds of graphically patterned quilts hung throughout the space in an awe-insiring visual cacophony. The geometrical variation was stunning. The exhibition design was stunning. The space itself was stunning.
Hundreds of people meandered through the collection of quilts, pointing out details to friends or using the exhibition’s iPad ap to learn about the history or design of a particular work. The lack of labels or informative pamphlets would normally annoy me but in this case, the dearth of labels allowed for an aesthetic immersion rarely experienced. There was a moment standing at the rear of the gallery that I felt viscerally overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of it all, an experience bordering on Stendhal Syndrome. So I sat down, the bright quilts above me swaying as though breathing and all I could think about was how extraordinary it all looked.
If you want to know more about the exhibition, Simon Schama with The Financial Times wrote this very informative article.
Having just celebrated its tenth birthday, the bronze-clad home of the American Folk Art Museum remains provocative, itself a work of art. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s unconventional building not only enlivens 53rd street but also provides a counterpoint to the clean-lined anonymity of the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed Museum of Modern Art next door. Like no other Manhattan architecture, the AFAM building is a combination of daring and human-scaled approachability.
Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the seemingly windowless geometric façade of the American Folk Art Museum adds character to the block with its dash of edginess. It features a fortress-like exterior composed of bronze panels hung on three planes to create a concave “Y-shaped” crease, evoking origami . The bronze panels appear to change color with the light yet have a solid stone-like texture missing from the slick glass and metal curtain wall of the Museum of Modern Art next door. The dark cladding would be foreboding if it stretched uninterrupted for half a block like MoMA’s, or rose to the height of the CBS building across the street. But as it is, the structure induces curiosity from passersby.
The edifice replaced three townhouses probably built in the 19th century which were fair representatives of their species but not otherwise remarkable. If they hadn’t been torn down to make way for the AFAM, the three story buildings would have been dwarfed by the modern structures surrounding them or eventually gobbled up in another MoMA expansion. The AFAM building echoes the solidity of other structures on the block, including its Eero Saarinen-designed neighbor across the street, The CBS building, but on a human scale. For all of its solidity, the building is strangely gnomish. Standing only five stories tall and 40 feet wide, it functions as a jewel box, concealing treasures within.
As architecture, the building is risky without being ugly, and folksy without being cute. As a museum, the Williams/Tsien-designed building is superior to the institution’s original home on the parlor floor of one of the townhouses. The relationship of its galleries to its external architecture is a strong one; when walking through the museum, rough concrete walls and flecked concrete banding around the wooden floors are a constant reminder of the structure and external shell. An open core spanning the height of the building provides glimpses into galleries on other floors while angled walls break exhibit space out of the conventional orthogonal box. Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art are designed not to be noticed, engage with, or take attention from the art. These chicly bland boxes bear little relationship to the glassy exterior except that both are as unobtrusive as possible. The architecture of the American Folk Art Museum engages the art within it while MoMA is an anonymous container.
On a block dominated by glass curtain walls and looming towers, the American Folk Art Museum is as quirky as it is strong. The Folk Art Museum’s uniqueness is both engaging and challenging. Not just a cry against convention, the building illustrates that a museum need not be an objective, anonymous container but can itself be sculpture.
Website “The Arts Are Alive in New York” launched with a disappointing website
Upcoming Monger posts this week:
Tuesday: My review of The Rubin Museum of Art
Thursday: I’ll attend the panel discussion How Social Media is Democratizing the Art World at Edelman NYC
Friday: I’ll post my discussion of the architecture of the struggling American Folk Art Museum
Sunday: I’ll post about museum news and upcoming events