The Reincarnation of MoMA

When the sleeping giant that is the Museum of Modern Art re-opened its eyes last month – after a three-year, $425 million dollar re-design – the city of New York was abuzz.

The plan had come about with its share of controversy – the price was too great; too many unknowns; the old building suited the collection well; the architect, Yushio Tanaguchi, is unproven in the West; the new $20 admission fee was too prohibitive. In due time, the space would be open and the verdict would be in. As summer turned to fall the subject of MoMA’s pending opening began surface in the art world and mainstream media. After three long years of waiting the questions that surfaced when the project first was undertaken were still waiting to be answered.

The outcome

What, then, were the results of this comprehensive overhaul of the building that houses the preeminent collection of modern art in the world, and did it fundamentally change the philosophy of this much-revered institution?

Museum director Glen Lowry, gathered before the world press on November 15 for MoMA’s press preview. His opening remarks summed it up like this:

“The founders of MoMA talked about the museum as a laboratory in which the public was able to participate, a place to talk about and present that collection in new and different ways,” Lowry said. “What (architect Tanaguchi) has done is to take the idea of a laboratory as a metaphor and transformed the museum into something that even those of us who dreamed about it could not have imagined.”

He then took that idea one step further.

“Yukio Tanaguchi has exploded the museum open to the city,” he said. A superb image for MoMA during such a celebratory event, almost exactly 75 years to the day after the first incarnation opened on the 12th floor of the Hecksher Building on Fifth Avenue in 1929, but not necessarily the most accurate.

Wonderful and subtle

What Yushio Tanaguchi has actually done to MoMA is to expand the building in wonderful and subtle ways that organically flow up and out over an entire city block, blending and fusing with the very marrow of Manhattan. An exceptional, contemplative and wide open accomplishment that lives and breathes on its own. It is a building in contradiction to what modern museum architecture has dictated – effusive structures making bold outward statements with efficient, if cold, interiors – and it succeeds in its mission.

What is even more interesting about the effect the building has on MoMA, besides offering roughly 60 percent more space, is that the institution emerges as no longer the upstart iconoclast which it was when it began 75 years ago. Rather, MoMA is a wiser, more staid and solid museum that is sure about what it presents and what it means. It is now grandfather to an entire movement in its ability to offer definition of the varied styles, the isms, which fall under the heading of “Modern.”

“The building has been completed,” Tanaguchi said. “The architecture should speak for itself.” There is no doubt that it does, and that the architecture will remain the star for the first few years of its existence, until the collection settles in. “Some people have called it very conservative because there is nothing sticking out,” Tanaguchi said later in an interview. “Some say it’s too liberal because there is so much room. I don’t know which is the right answer. I do think this building is the right answer to the question of MoMA.”

Focus on art and artists

“There will always be tension between art of the immediate present and art of the immediate past,” Lowry said in an interview. “That’s in the nature of this institution. Basically, we don’t try to focus on where we fit into some spectrum, but rather we focus on art and artists that are making it.”

As with any space created with the sole purpose of viewing art, light is an important element, and with the new building, along with the careful curatorial philosophy, the new MoMA is also an unmitigated triumph. The previous building, besides featuring a rigid structure of galleries, was seen under the harsh glare of electric light. Certain parts of the space benefited from natural light, but not enough. Now, as Tanaguchi has designed it, each corner of the building unfolds with windows and sky light that provide a soft countenance for the art to reveal itself in. What’s more, the way in which the windows are placed, the exact angle, each slice of Manhattan glimpsed without the museum confines itself becomes a piece of art viewed in contrast and context to whichever gallery you are in. The resulting euphoria is nothing if not Zen.

Clearly a man aware of his talent, Tanaguchi stopped short of total self-congratulation. He repeatedly pointed to the organization and the massive effort made by hundreds of people to make the design become a reality. All along, Tanaguchi related, he was aware of the symbiosis that he had to achieve and he knew that it could not – like a painting or a sculpture – be done alone. Furthermore, he knew it had to appeal to the most diverse audience in the world. “When I first came to present my ideas to MoMA,” he said, “I told them I think of MoMA as a microcosm of Manhattan, so I thought that what I had to do, in a way, is to make a new city within the city.”

What price enlightenment?

With the unqualified success that the museum has had in its first few weeks since re-opening, it is important to note that controversy over the new admission price to the museum, $20 – up from $12 when the space closed in spring of 2001 – is still alive and well.

There will always be people that will go to the museum who will be happy to pay the admission – the quality of such a collection is beyond measure and without equal in the world – but by bumping up the price so much it is feared that a dangerous precedent is being set; that museums all over the nation will follow suit. Art will join the realm of theater, dance, opera and symphony as only the domain of those who can afford it. The people that could most benefit from it, and the people that live in the city with MoMA and are the core of visitors, will no longer be able to gain access to the collection because the price is too high.

“You have to remember that we are a private institution,” Lowry said, “and that we receive no government funding. Furthermore we hope – and we believe – that the experience of the museum is better than it’s ever been. The relative value, we believe, merits the cost.”
Without directly answering the deeper philosophical question, Lowry also pointed out that the museum is free every Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and that memberships, which provide repeated access, are still only $75. Like it or not, the $20 admission is here to stay.

If the cost of admission is the only controversy that MoMA has to face in its new incarnation, then the museum can well feel that it’s achieved the mission that it set out to accomplish; that is, to give it’s collection more space to spread out in more galleries, to be vital to a major urban center and the create a viewing experience that is more inviting to the public. There’s no question that the new MoMA succeeds, and does so beautifully.

The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 West 53 Street, New York, New York. Admission is $20, $16 for seniors. Hours are Wednesday through Monday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and on Fridays until 8 p.m.
For more information, call (212) 708-9400, email or visit

Excerpted from a feature published in the December 2004 issue of Northeast.

Written By: Noah Fleisher
Source: New England Antiques Journal