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Neighbors Pan MoMA's 'Banal' Museum-Razing Expansion Plan

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In an attempt to reassure Midtown residents that MoMA's proposed expansion is necessary and even desirable, museum reps presented their case to Community Board 5 members last night—but the board lodged far more concerns than MoMA was able to resolve in one sitting. Citing the acquisition of more large-scale works since 2000 (including some pieces which require an entire room or more to display), a new department focused exclusively on media and performance art, and a desire to make the lobby "more welcoming at the sidewalk level," MoMA said the only option was to tear down the American Folk Art Museum (a very contentious move) and significantly expand their gallery space.

But the irony of destroying what is arguably one piece of artwork to maintain others was not lost on area residents. "Would it be OK to ruin a piece of art in your collection in order to do something else?" asked one attendee. "How can you take away a site-specific location and be ok with that?" MoMA's answer was that they had "studied every possible option," including keeping the museum's iconic bronze façade, but Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the project's architects, simply could not use it in its new design. Some of the spaces within the folk art museum were just too narrow, and there would be "circulation problems" for visitors trying to move freely throughout the building.

Further, paraphrasing MoMA director Glenn Lowry, the rep said the museum wasn't in the business of collecting buildings but collecting art. In recognition of the facade's importance, however, she vowed that the bronze panels would receive the "white glove treatment" when they are removed during demolition and kept in storage indefinitely.

But residents were not giving up on the folk museum that easily. Another community member, praising the uniqueness of the current museum's design, lambasted the prospect of yet another glass and steel building going up in its place, calling it "very banal" and "exceedingly boring and dull." She suggested that the original architects of the folk museum—Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—be used instead of DS+R to come up with something more interesting.

MoMA reps had little to say in response to that... and the objections to the expansion kept coming. The museum's neighbors wondered if all the options had really been considered, including the prospect of moving into another part of Manhattan where other people who didn't have as much museum access could be exposed to art. MoMA replied that they were "committed to staying" where they are. And wanted to "provide our public with new ways to experience our collection in Midtown, without necessarily segmenting or segregating it."

Board members were also concerned about continued development beyond this one, pointing out another expansion less than a decade ago. But MoMA could provide no reassurance that this would be the last expansion for the foreseeable future, and added that it would be "disingenuous" to suggest that this current proposal would fulfill the museum's needs for any set amount of time.

Even the seemingly positive proposal to create a more open entrance on West 54th Street, which would allow people to enter the sculpture garden directly from the street was denounced by some neighbors who didn't want "to be inundated" by museum visitors on a more residential street. The museum currently operates two entrances on West 54th.

Opening the sculpture garden to the public for free has in itself attracted its detractors and proponents. "The idea that you buy your giant pretzel and walk in off the street is, I'm sorry, just not the same," one recent garden visitor told the Times.

Environmental concerns cast a pall over MoMA's plans as well. An exact date for the folk museum's demise hasn't yet been set, but the museum's neighbors are already worried about the noise and pollution that will come about as a result. Diana Bond, who lives just 60 feet away from the site, said "if I had to choose my health over a piece of artwork… I'm in the camp of the person." She continued, "There is no art without the observer," which elicited chuckles from the audience. Then she added that this is something "MoMA has to think about."

There are also concerns about seismic shifts in the area since the developers will not only be building up but eight stories down. But again, MoMA could not answer these questions and suggested they be directed towards the developers once the plans became more concrete.

In the meantime, MoMA suggested residents use the website it has set up (URL forthcoming) to get information as it becomes available and be on the lookout for "community issues corums" that it plans to hold throughout the expansion process.
—Kizzy Cox
· MoMA's Proposal for Sculpture Garden Pleases and Riles [NYT]
· Amid Criticism, Architect Defends MoMA Plan As 'Only Option' [Curbed]
· All MoMA expansion coverage [Curbed]