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Tear Down on 53rd Street

In the midst of the controversy over MoMA’s decision to destroy the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, a record of sorts was set: the largest auction of a collection of American folk art in history (yielding close to $13 million) took place at Sotheby’s on January 25, 2014. Comprised of the holdings of Ralph O. Esmerian, the former president and once largest benefactor of the American Folk Art Museum, the collection was sold to pay off enormous debts to his creditors as a result of a series of financial crimes that ultimately sent him to prison.

Convicted and then sentenced in July 2011, two months after the Folk Art Museum’s building was sold to MoMA for what will amount to carefully preserved scrap metal, Esmerian’s desperate attempts to recover from speculative excesses led him into such intricate webs of deceit and illegality that he ultimately proved to be the Folk Art Museum’s equivalent of Bernie Madoff. While the causal relationship between architecture and its funding is often ignored in favor of an aesthetic debate, the ultimate judgment, a building’s disappearance from the city’s skyline, is rarely determined solely on its aesthetic merits.

The current debate over MoMA’s planned westward expansion has pitted a cultural giant against an empty museum building incapable of defending itself, providing an Arts & Leisure version of a World Wrestling Federation match while ignoring the underlying issues of economy and infrastructure which led to the current circumstances. A less addressed but key issue is the agenda shared by the two museums: “If you build it, they will come,” and what this means for the fate of museums generally in the current economic and cultural climate.

A dominant view among museum boards now seems to be that the survival of “high” culture is increasingly dependent on claiming market share from the entertainment industry (witness the recent Jay Z/Abramovic collaboration at the Pace Gallery, inspired by Abramovic’s performance at MoMA). While exhibitions and events can draw crowds in big numbers, the ultimate exercise in branding for cultural institutions is to wow the public with an instant icon—a crowd-pleasing, spectacular building capable of generating a global buzz and providing endless supplies of eager tourists to justify the expense. Pursuing a strategy which has unleashed something akin to a world-wide arms race of signature buildings, so many museums and universities now covet the legendary “Bilbao Effect” that the goal of maintaining a socially relevant cultural vision is often obscured and, in some cases, undermined (e.g. Cooper Union’s new building) by the risks associated with major construction projects.

Joining this race in 2001, the Folk Art Museum and Esmerian scored a coup in securing a rising star-architect couple, Tod Willams and Billie Tsien, to design a new building to house their collection. But the lack of sex appeal of Folk Art, cloistered behind what many found to be an uninviting façade, combined with an economic crisis that undermined their benefactor’s financial house of cards, ultimately left them unable to pay when a $32 million construction loan came due. This set the stage for the “buyout;” it now seems clear MoMA acquired the former Folk Art Museum building (in real estate parlance) as a “tear down.” While it’s tempting to see MoMA’s move as an isolated and egregious act of “museumicide,” a less lofty but parallel scenario in residential real estate has played out across the country. Whole neighborhoods of empty homes from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, casualties of shoddy financing, are now being bought up by outside corporate investors and either torn down or rented en masse, significantly reshaping the “social contract” implied by a connection to place, while upping the ante of speculation.

MoMA’s latest planned expansion is yet another speculative gamble that, because they appear “too big to fail,” is being undertaken with a certain amount of hubris. Their “need” for more prime real estate requires ever-increasing revenue. More dependent on admission fees than other New York-area museums, MoMA increased the admission price 67 percent after its last face-lift, more recently adding yet another five dollars (pre-emptive?) increase, bringing the current admission to $25. Glenn Lowry’s aggressive “grow or die” mandate has meant stocking the museum’s board with deeper and deeper pockets from the real estate, finance, and entertainment worlds. In need of close to a billion dollars for the 2004 expansion, an internal shame game played out among board members, where pressure was applied by the bigger donors on their colleagues to deliver the roughly seven million dollars per board member to help get the job done. Severed from responsibility to a public that matches private funds with government and community support, the ever-escalating costs of “museum envy” have relied on greater and greater wealth from fewer and fewer people. The idea of civic culture, once understood to represent the broader public’s interest, is increasingly subject to the agenda (and means) of the small minority that now funds it.

While both Glenn Lowry and Mayor Bloomberg have been lauded for approaching civic culture as they would a successful business, their philosophies have played out against a backdrop of the increased privatization of the public realm. As the economy fluctuated between booms and recessions over the last 30 years, the hard times called for cutbacks in public services (many of which were then transferred to private hands), while the good times saw less of the wealth shared, as “pro-growth” tax breaks and zoning changes favorable to private development stimulated a luxury condo boom which has contributed to a crisis in affordable housing. As the city’s land values have escalated from the thriving market in high-end residences and hotels, many community gardens, schools, and hospitals have been converted to private use and are unlikely to be replaced.

The position of outrage in the current debate, which assumes that the Folk Museum building is somehow a part of a protected public realm, ignores the economic realities of the last several decades. In some ways architecture has become a product like any other, a commodity that can be leveraged based on the star power of an architect. Williams and Tsein’s notoriety could not save their building from the combined clout of MoMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro; the structure is now an obstacle which, once removed, will ensure the latter’s dominance.

Given their work for the Barnes Foundation, Williams and Tsein’s appeal to save the former Folk Art Museum as a “teaching tool” has a bitter irony attached, as Albert Barnes’s will—which stipulated that the collection was not intended to serve as a museum but existed for educational purposes—was ignored in favor of the eventual removal and transfer far from the building for which the collection was conceived. Creating a simulacra of the original Barnes structure, the architects eerily anticipated the trauma in store for their building on 53rd Street, now a functionless shell divorced from the collection that gave it its significance. As some in the art and architecture world begin to mourn the building’s fate, it’s worth considering that we may be in an era where an excessive investment in star architects risks displacing architecture, and that what is really being mourned, a credible and sustained link between architecture, civic culture, and place, has been absent for some time.


Peter Scott

Peter Scott is an artist, writer, curator, and director of the non-profit gallery carriage trade.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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