Notes & Comments January 1998
Privileging the contemporary
On the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
It was a little more than a decade ago, in 1984, that the Museum of Modern Art completed its last major expansion. That effort lasted nearly four years, during most of which time the museum was closed or nearly so, with only a token representation of its permanent collection being accessible to the public. The result of this massive expansion was, as we noted at the time, a museum designed for a public nurtured on blockbuster exhibitions--exhibitions that are as much media events as they are art events, and that have the inevitable effect of arousing, by means of high intensity publicity campaigns, the kind of interest which art in and of itself can probably never fully satisfy. Hence the prevalence of the museum-as-department-store design, above all the exposed escalators to handle the greatly increased crowds attracted as much by MOMAs restaurant and atrium as by its collection.
Now MOMA is about to embark on another major expansionthe largest ever. At a recent press conference to announce the architect entrusted with this latest building extravaganza, museum officials were as ebullient as real estate developers unexpectedly presented with a large parcel of Midtown land. Ronald S. Lauder, chairman of the museums board of trustees, told the assembled press that the new expansion was as exciting and important an event as the museums opening at 11 West Fifty-third Street in 1929. (He meant 1939, but whats ten years among friends?) David Rockefeller spoke about his passionate belief in the arts as a positive force in society. And Glenn D. Lowry, the smooth-talking specialist in Islamic art that MOMA recently appointed as its director, emitted a Niagara of bureaucratese about the museums need for space, his effort to find a way to vitalize the rich store embedded in this institution, etc.
Anyone who has wondered, as we have, why a museum of modern art should have chosen someone whose expertise was in Islamic art as a director need only have witnessed Mr. Lowrys performance to understand the choice. Clearly, he was chosen not for his scholarly specialty but for his administrative and public-relations savvy. Mr. Lowry is a consummate performer: one of the new breed of museum directors whose chief qualification is not connoisseurship but entrepreneurial ambition. And we should say straight off that Yoshio Taniguchi, the distinguished Japanese architect chosen by MOMA to undertake its mammoth new expansion, has come up with a design that seems a model of understated modernist elegance.
Nevertheless, anyone who cares about the Museum of Modern Art will have to regard this latest undertaking with profound skepticism. The new expansion will at least double the museums exhibition space. But what, pray tell, will the museum put into those new galleries? Mr. Lowry solemnly informed his audience that only about ten percent of the museums collection could currently be shown. Of course, most museums can only show a small fraction of their holdings. But what was most ominous in Mr. Lowrys remarks was his talk of privileging the contemporary. More and more, the Museum of Modern Art has skirted its mandate to preserve the tradition of high modernism in order to enter the glitzy, superficial world of contemporary art. The sad truth is that the contemporary art world, so largely given over as it is to various rebarbative political trends, is all but barren of aesthetic interest. Today, for a museum to privilege the contemporary is to abandon artistic standards and embrace the repulsive detritus that has illegitimately come to be celebrated as art. That is why anyone who really cares about art should support a moratorium on new museum building. Until there is something new worth putting in galleries of contemporary art, museums should concentrate on their original function: to preserve and exhibit the best art of the past.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 5, on page 3
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