You Can’t Go Back to Your Momma’s MoMA

Some of us, fewer and fewer, remember when there were three museums on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth: the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and the Museum of American Folk Art. The New York Public Library had a substantial branch there too. I know this is hard to believe.

And when you climbed to the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art, Guernica stopped you in your tracks. Eleven feet high and 25 across, drained of color, as beautiful as something horrible can be.

Today there is only MoMA, the 858 Million Dollar Museum, better, stronger. Guernica left for Madrid in 1981, but I just downloaded it for free and made it my laptop wallpaper. They say the Donnell Library will reemerge at the bottom of a hotel/condo tower designed by Enrique Norten.

The other two museums have had a bumpy coming-of-age.

The Museum of Contemporary Crafts, a child of Aileen Osborn Webb’s American Craftsmen’s (then Crafts, then Craft) Council, was on 53rd Street from 1956 until the late 1970s, when it sold its building to MoMA and changed its name to the American Craft Museum. It returned to 53rd, on the lower levels of an office building, in 1986.

Meanwhile, the shared identity of the Craft Council and the Craft Museum—which became an independent organization in 1990—was unraveling. We woke up one day in 2002 and learned that New York now had a Museum of Arts and Design (not to be confused with the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum).

Successfully competing for the City-owned “Lollypop Building” on Columbus Circle, MAD carried out a controversial Brad Cloepfil retrofit of Edward Durell Stone’s then unfashionable landmark—not being a landmark in the legal sense, the mid-century building was unprotected—and moved in, in 2008. A decade after the name-change, it’s still quite common for New Yorkers to explain to friends (often other New Yorkers), “you know, it used to be the Craft Museum.”

But this is not your father’s craft museum. MAD “explores the intersection of [or ‘blur zone between,’ in a hip variation] art, craft and design today.” Still, the museum does not seem to have fully beamed up to its brave new world. In 2009-10, for example, you could travel by elevator between the exhibition Slash: Paper Under The Knife and a display of pins collected and worn by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The Museum of American Folk Art—originally the Museum of Early American Folk Arts—opened on MoMA’s side of the street in 1963. Plans to expand there were pursued and set aside during the 1980s. Exhibitions took place at temporary locations until the museum landed at Lincoln Square, opposite Lincoln Center, in 1989. (MoMA’s west wing and Museum Tower, designed by Cesar Pelli, opened in 1984. There’s a two-bedroom in the Tower going for 3½ mil if you’re interested.) 

The launch of a Contemporary Center in 1997 marked the museum’s shift to a broader definition of folk art, to include 20th-century self-taught artists, American or not. Also in 1997, the museum mounted an exhibition of art created by Chicago janitor Henry Darger (1892-1973). The Henry Darger Study Center was founded three years later to house works by Darger, whom the museum describes as “one of the most prominent artists of the twentieth century,” and related archival materials.

When the American Folk Art Museum (new name, indicating that it was now the museum, not the art, that was American) reopened on 53rd Street, on view in its new hammered-bronze home, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, were the permanent collection, dramatically hung, and two special exhibitions: American Radiance (subtitle: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum) and a selection from the Darger holdings.

The juxtaposition of Esmerian’s Pennsylvania German needlework and Darger’s scrolls of traced Coppertone girls being tortured (from his monumental Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion) must have been mind-blowing, even more than the pairing of cutting-edge paper art with Madeleine’s pins.

This is not to second-guess the series of events connected with the once-in-a-lifetime Darger acquisition. But the decision by the Folk Art Museum to make a double commitment—to maintain and add to its core collection of 18th– and 19th-century American folk art while going for the big score, so to speak, in outsider art, a hotly contested international arena—was fateful.

And almost fatal. Buried in debt, the museum sold the ten-year-old 53rd Street building to MoMA in 2011 and retreated to its dollar-a-year Lincoln Square space. Given the outcry at the proposed demolition of what many consider a masterpiece, the plans for MoMA’s next Great Leap Forward may be modified to permit the structure’s continued, perhaps partial, existence.

Also in 2011, bankrupt Madison Avenue jeweler and former Folk Art Museum chairman Ralph Esmerian was convicted of fraud, fined $20 million, and sentenced to six years in prison and 1,800 days of community service. As Lee Rosenbaum reported in a post dated December 27, 2012, on her blog, CultureGrrl, the museum may get to keep 53 of the 263 objects that Esmerian promised to donate.

So not even counting 9/11 (three months before the ribbon-cutting) or the Great Recession, the Folk Art Museum’s troubles were of the perfect-storm variety. (Did some of their ship’s figureheads come from ill-fated vessels?) But the mission-and-vision issues remain, both in general terms—how do you rebrand without alienating your best customers?—and in the category variously labeled folk, self-taught, outsider, vernacular, and visionary art.

The popularity of the American Visionary Art Museum, which opened in Baltimore in 1995, resulted in a major expansion in 2004. I refer those who would like to explore this topic to its “What is Visionary Art?” webpage, to the Folk Art Museum’s “About the Collection” webpage, and to “Composition in Black and White,” an article by Paige Williams about African American artist Thornton Dial in this week’s New Yorker.

A sidebar and a segue: When MoMA announced that it had purchased and would tear down the Folk Art Museum’s building, in line with its scorched-earth policy toward non-MoMA structures on its block, New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz attacked the building’s architecture, saying the museum got what it deserved by commissioning such an expensive, unworkable facility (see his May 11, 2011, post on Vulture). His colleague Justin Davidson posted a rebuttal. Among the comments that followed, someone with the handle COOLOBSERVER wrote:

All the sad fuss about this impressive, if slightly ugly little building, and yet the Morgan “renovation” with all its incredible in your face obnoxiousness, blandness and non-sense goes relatively unscathed!

I’m not COOLOBSERVER, and I don’t necessarily agree with him or her, but please join me next week for “Troppo Piano.”

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