Frame of reference

by Laura Sim | 1/12/14 6:23pm

Some of the most beautiful buildings in the world are home to the most beautiful works of art. The Getty in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim in New York and the Louvre in Paris all come to mind. Perhaps this is why critics and architects jumped to their feet when the Museum of Modern Art recently announced last Wednesday that it would raze the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

As part of its ambitious redesign plan, the MoMA hopes to add a retractable glass wall to its exterior, expand gallery space and open its entire first floor to the public free of charge. In order to create space, the museum wants to demolish its neighbor, which it purchased in 2011 after the Folk Art Museum defaulted on $32 million in loans.

Specializing in 18th- and 19th-century paintings, quilts and crafts by self-taught artists, the Folk Art Museum provides a home to works historically barred from the museum setting. Exhibits feature Shaker gift drawings, needlework samplers and paintings by artists like Edward Hicks and Sheldon Peck, who have only recently gained appreciation among art critics.

The Folk Art Museum’s unique copper exterior also stands as a sculpture. Designed by local architects, husband-wife duo Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, in 2001, the building quickly became iconic for its shoebox appearance.

The MoMA is no newcomer, however, to the “art” of renovation. The museum’s recent history includes frequent makeovers and face lifts, with large-scale changes in 2000, 2002 and again in 2004 – the last of which came at the hefty price tag of $858 million.

Regretfully, the MoMA seems to have forgotten that architecture is a form of art as well, one that typically gains in reputation as it passes the test of time. A building’s significance grows through our repeated interactions with its courtyards or galleries, which becomes impossible if a building is always changing.

Since opening in 1929, the MoMA has established an illustrious track record of modern art shows, by primarily European and American artists, and become home to one of the most important, comprehensive collections of such work in the world. The museum’s strong curatorial instinct has helped to make artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko staples of art history textbooks.

Yet the commercial success of the MoMA’s shows and more generally modern art has created a sort of monster — a MoMA with enough money and clout to throw its weight around among the New York art scene. Recently, the MoMA beat out even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a bid to house Robert Rauschenberg’s masterpiece, “Canyon.”

As one of the world’s most prestigious museums, the MoMA is increasingly acting like your Econ 1 textbook’s profit-maximizing firm. The cost is the cultural importance that the museum used to reflect.

Should an institution like the MoMA sacrifice one gift to the community for another? The greatest gift a museum can offer is to provide a space where culture, art and community can come together. When one space is enriched at the expense of another, the answer gets murky.

Closer to our hearts, Dartmouth faces similar questions each time it undergoes renovations and expansions. The College possesses much financial power and influence, yet it has limited space. We must continuously ask ourselves, “What do we choose to preserve, and what must be sacrificed?” Though there is no one right answer, we must take time to reflect on the importance of our spaces.