On 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, New York’s art world is undergoing a transformation. Last week, the Museum of Modern Art announced the final decision to raze the former American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and completed at the tail end 2001, to the dismay of much of the art media—many rightfully in love with the buildings glorious bronze façade—and the relative glee of critic Jerry Saltz, who never really liked the building in the first place. Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, hired last year by MoMA to explore the potential of saving the AFAM, concluded that demolition was the only viable option. And, with that, the debate has ended.
Why grieve the loss of a building Saltz has called “a useless space for the exhibition of art?”
It is a question of how space dictates a viewer's experience with art.
In place of the former AFAM, MoMA plans a multi-dimensional space that functions primarily as public park and idealistically as a cultural space. Saltz, in a open letter to MoMA trustees published on January 13, attacks the idea. Though Saltz never liked the AFAM, he doesn’t like the new plan either, rightfully fearing for the future of art exhibitions at MoMA and writing, “What DS+R propose will forever alter the course of this great museum, transforming MoMA into an amusement park where people will look at other people looking at other people looking at people trying to look at art.”
It is a question of how space dictates a viewer's experience with art. The current sculpture garden, described by Saltz as “one of New York’s few great sanctuary spaces,” will fall in favor of a “mall walk.” A loss of intimacy is key to Saltz’s critique of the DS+R plan, and also the core of my own sadness in the ultimate demise of the American Folk Art Museum.
In December of 2011, when the Williams and Tsien building opened, I was entertaining a career in museums. Studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I favored American art and material culture—explicitly forms that revealed vernacular American values—and vehemently championed outliers ignored by other art historians. While those around me investigated Stella and Stieglitz, I queried the connections of furniture to specific social groups and the link between tattooing and American parlor art. The American Folk Art Museum became my temple, a gleaming structure that valued the very same objects that captured my imagination.
The American Folk Art Museum became my temple, a gleaming structure that valued the very same objects that captured my imagination.
Behind the bronze façade, occupying a sliver of space on 53rd, the museum’s tight quarters celebrated the promise of close looking. Vistas, like those possible in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently reconfigured American wing, were impossible. Instead, one encountered works dead on. Sometimes, as with the slim wall facing 53rd that housed a small exhibition of scrimshaw, there was an element of surprise. Proximity was cause for contemplation. Williams and Tsien’s building functioned as a jewel box—neatly organized and perfectly suited for engaging with the museum’s offerings.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien understand intimacy. Speaking at my brother’s high school graduation in June of 2002, the couple—still fresh off the completion of the American Folk Art Museum—compared the squeeze of their Carnegie Hall apartment to the spaciousness encountered by their son, Kai, when he entered his first Loomis Chaffee dorm room.
No confusion, then, as to why their first major commission so successfully incorporated rooms not much bigger than those found in a townhouse mansion. If not strictly homey, the spaces allowed for what New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp delightfully coined as “fireside intimacy.”
In his initial review of the building, Muschamp cast Williams and Tsien’s design against a rising tide of “entertainment architecture.” He also properly contextualized the structure in the wake of 9/11, an opportunity to “restore [New York’s] eroded sense of optimism about the urban future.”
For all its critical lauding, the American Folk Art Museum suffered for the very reasons it succeeded. Though I disagree with Saltz’s assessment of the museum’s failure as an exhibition space, I can reluctantly concede that the galleries battled against a decade in which breaking down traditional art world elitism was favored museum tact. Any perception of preciousness—the very thing critic Peter Schjeldahl loved about the AFAM—combated with grand open spaces, some of which, like Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion for the Milwaukee Art Museum (also completed in 2001), followed a trend of big, starchitect statements devoid of any particular museum use.
Why else stand in interminable lines for the Rain Room, or to stare at Marina Abramovic, without the promise of a personal interaction with art?
Given the way museums were going in 2001, the AFAM was doomed from the beginning. Small spaces focused on small art? Outmoded. Yet, the intimacy offered remains something the public craves. Why else stand in interminable lines for the Rain Room, or to stare at Marina Abramovic, without the promise of a personal interaction with art?
Perhaps the folk art simply doesn’t connect with a contemporary New York audience. Though few shows at the AFAM were dismissed as rubbish, I regularly lamented why more people waiting for MoMA entrance weren’t following me inside. There was no reason the glorious maritime paintings of Thomas Chambers shouldn’t have enthralled the same folks queuing to sit across from Marina (the two exhibitions closed days apart in March of 2010). Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s titillating photos, fundamentally just fun to look at, were likely just a mystery to large tourist groups next door. The famous bronze façade might as well have been a force field against anyone without pre-existing interest in the art within. On July 8, 2011, the American Folk Art Museum welcomed visitors in midtown for the last time.
The institution floundered as a new wave of artists eschewed formal space altogether and hit the streets. Bollocks to elitism, indeed. When the American Folk Art Museum announced closure in 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles was generating global buzz with Jeffrey Deitch’s debut blockbuster, "Art in the Streets." The continued growth of the Kohler Foundation—which has neatly incorporated street art with its more traditional endeavors—no doubt buttressed belief in the niche, too.
We are now aware of its future—another New York landmark razed as the ever-mutating city changes.
An exhibition I helped organize at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum in 2009, "Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor" (influenced, in part, by the Folk Art Museum’s pioneering exhibition, "Tattoo!" of 1971), attracted strong crowds through its run and continued successfully with a second installation at Mystic Seaport. In short, there was some hope, around the country, for the art world outsider.
But, there was also sadness. For two years, the fate of the AFAM remained in flux. We are now aware of its future—another New York landmark razed as the ever-mutating city changes.
New York is filled with glorious small institutions—The Bard Graduate Center, the Grolier Club, the National Academy of Art, and others. All exist in the shadows of the Big Apple’s monoliths (the Guggenheim, the Met, and the Whitney), and these little places offer decidedly quiet and delightfully calm places to commune with art. The American Folk Art Museum, while still represented by its Lincoln Center galleries, was the small institution with a brazen heart. Why not compete? Why not express boldly, through distinctive architecture and stunning exhibition, a counter to the art world glitterati and inherent belt-notching of the blue chip?
When the bulldozer finally takes Williams and Tsien’s small masterpiece, it will remove a rebellious spirit from midtown. It will signal that small isn’t good enough, and that truly communicating with art is not this city’s priority.