When the Museum of Modern Art renovates, it doesn’t take half-measures. On October 21st, the museum officially reopened its doors to the public and — at long last — welcomed visitors into its expanded campus.
The expansion adds 40,000 square feet to MoMA’s footprint and reportedly cost upwards of $450 million to complete. Today, the museum’s borders span the majority of the 53rd Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It was an admittedly tricky project to execute, as the architects needed to meld two sites — three floors of a residential tower on 53 West 53rd Street and an entirely new building at 45 West 53rd Street — into a cohesive whole with the museum’s original campus. It’s fair to say that MoMA met the challenge head-on, albeit with help; plans for the renovation were developed by the museum with assistance from the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and in collaboration with Gensler.
According to MoMA, the renovations served as a means to “rethink how we share art with you. We’ve reinstalled the entire collection to share exhilaratingly broad views of the art of our time in a way that is always evolving.” And it’s true — besides offering access to three floors of collection galleries and thousands of drawings, sculptures, video, and other artworks, some spaces within MoMA’s expanded campus also provide visitors opportunities to engage with art in a more personal and affecting way.
In the new Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, for instance, museum-goers experience live and experimental programming firsthand. As one writer for MoMA puts the matter, “Through new commissions, festivals, and residencies, as well as presentations of landmark works from the collection […] you can directly engage with artists and works in process and see pivotal and emerging works in dialogue.”
Similarly, the new Paula and James Crown Creativity Lab provides an experimental space where visitors can interact not only with MoMA’s art, but the artists who create it. Until August of 2020, the Lab will see a steady calendar of conversations and workshops that explore the environments and cultures that underpin artistic practice.
MoMA’s new campus has been a long time in the making. The first phase of the project began in 2014 with renovations to the east wing; that same year, MoMA announced its intent to demolish the former American Folk Art Museum building and construct new gallery space atop its foundation. MoMA faced some blowback for the demolition, both from the former building’s architectural team (Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects) and supporters of the Folk Art Museum. The project pushed on; by the end of 2017, MoMA had completed the first phase of renovations on its east wing and began construction on the west. Now, after years of effort, the museum’s transformation has finally reached a stopping point.
People seem to appreciate the change — for the new galleries, and for the unique architectural environment that encompasses them. As one writer describes for Fast Company: “The building is made up of a series of sharp angles and steel lines, but the galleries are woven into a series of seemingly infinite loops; the experience of viewing each exhibit felt more like an accidental discovery than something I could have ever intentionally charted. The building feels like a puzzle worth solving.”
In a way, the renovated building has itself become art — a tangible, thought-provoking, and walkable masterpiece that exudes the modern artistic spirit and curiosity.
Want more insights into New York’s art and culture scene? Check our blog post on the Coolest Pop-up Museums in NYC!
Every landmark has its secrets, and with one as rich as New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the stories are almost certainly boundless. While the MoMA’s greatest secrets might always be just that — secret — we’ve rounded up some incredibly obscure and interesting facts about the museum. These tidbits of knowledge, while mostly limited to the minds of curators and tour guides, can help the everyday museum-goer understand the space with new context.
Here are six surprising facts of the Museum of Modern Art that you’d probably never guess at first glance, and how tuning in can enhance your experience.
1. John D. Rockefeller loathed modern art, but the museum was largely founded by his wife Abby.
Rockefeller’s wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was largely responsible for the founding of the Museum of Modern Art. You’d think that being the wife of a famously rich man, the job would be an easy one. On the contrary, her husband hated modern art, meaning Abby had to raise the funds without his help.
2. The MoMA is a microcosm of Manhattan itself.
The MoMA has had several homes and various expansions since its opening on 53rd street in 1939. The museum acquired more and more real estate over the years, and in 2002 expanded even further, retaining at its heart its pivotal sculpture garden. What many don’t realize is that the museum reflects the city as a whole.
“The model for MoMA is Manhattan itself,” architect Yoshio Taniguchi told New York magazine for a feature by Alexandra Lang. “The Sculpture Garden is Central Park, and around it is a city with buildings of various functions and purpose. MoMA is a microcosm of Manhattan.”
3. Two of Monet’s “Water Lilies” paintings were destroyed by fire.
One of the MoMA’s most iconic paintings is “Water Lilies” by Monet, positioned in front of a bench for relaxation and contemplation — as was the intent of the painter, who created them while suffering from cataracts as a “refuge of a peaceful meditation.” They were dismissed for many years as the product of a man past his prime.
Then, in 1958, a fire disrupted the art’s tranquility in the museum and destroyed two of the “Water Lilies” painting. The imminently popular triptych on display now was purchased as a replacement from Monet’s son.
4. Before landing at the MoMA, a taxidermied bald eagle caused a host of legal problems.
America’s bald eagle, while a striking symbol, is one not normally physically included in art — largely because it’s a protected species. So when Robert Rauschenberg put a taxidermied eagle in his 1959 masterpiece “Canyon,” it’s fate was relegated to limbo for a while because it was illegal to sell, despite its valuation of $65 million.
The feds agreed to drop the matter so long as “Canyon” be sold where it could be publicly displayed, which is how the work found its home at the MoMa.
5. One artwork, a fur-covered mug, was snuck in years before it was approved
Among the fifth floor painting and sculpture galleries is a fur-covered cup and saucer called Object by Meret Oppenheim. The idea was conceived by the artist while at lunch with Pablo Picasso, who remarked that fur could be put on anything.
This installation has a peculiar history: after debuting in Paris, it was purchased by the MoMA’s director for $50 of his own money in 1936, even though the trustees disagreed with its inclusion. Ten years later the trustees changed their tune; unbeknownst to many it had been in the museum all along labeled as an “extended loan.” Said chief curator Ann Tempkin for TimeOut NY, “It’s one of the great stars of our Surrealism collection; to think that our director had to sneak it in!”
6. A long-term exhibit in MoMA PS1 can only be seen through a floorboard.
The MoMa also has a branch in Queens called PS1, home to more abstract works of art, dubbed “contemporary.” The art of the contemporary is that it’s sometimes easy to mistake for non-art, and often difficult to grasp in meaning.
Some of these hidden gems, like “Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless in the Bath of Lava)” by Pipilotti Rist. Peek through a hole in the lobby floor to view the video, which presents the artist crying “I am a worm and you are a flower!” as she swims nude in an incandescent lava bath. Easy to miss, impossible to forget.
7. You can watch videos privately in the media lounge.
On the second floor of the MoMA, there’s a space where you can enjoy art in privacy if you aren’t up to walking among crowds. It’s a media lounge in which visitors can choose from the museum’s extensive video collection to view artwork on their own or with a small group.
The Media Lounge is also a piece of art in and of itself. Designed by artist Renée Green, the installation consists of colorful, expandable walls that can be shifted to create a viewing environment that fits the audience.
8. The only “free” work in the museum is the @ symbol
One of the most peculiar acquisitions in recent history by the MoMA is the @ symbol, a design both ubiquitous and singular, free and priceless. The symbol is public and dates back to the sixth or seventh century, though Ray Tomlinson chose the symbol for the first e-mail, imbuing it with new meaning and creating a symbol of the computer age.
Says the MoMA website, “We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.” Notes senior curator Paula Antonelli for TimeOut NY, “[The one] we show in the museum is silk-screened on the wall in American Typewriter font. You should think of it as a shadow of the design.”
For about a decade, plans have been in the works to build a skyscraper adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Construction began in 2015 for the 1,050-foot tower, which will add to New York City’s skyline a two-peaked, 82-floor skyscraper designed by renowned architect Jean Nouvel.
The project, first called the MoMa Expansion Tower, Tower Verre and ultimately 53W53, will be the latest transformation to the area literally built upon the MoMA’s place and history in New York City. The 17,000-foot lot was sold by the MoMa to the real estate company Hines in 2007, and will be nearly the size of the Empire State Building.
Birth of a museum
Though 53 West 53rd will soon be topped by a graceful and angular monolith, the lot would have been virtually unrecognizable at the time of the MoMA’s first occupancy on the block in 1939. (Though opened in 1929, the MoMA tested various locations before settling where it remains today.)
Still, the property was impressive for the time, designed in the “International Style” by modernist architects Philip L Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. The multi-departmental structure devoted floors upon floors to various forms of modern art, adding departments for architecture and design, film and video, and photography to its existing collections of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and illustrated books.
The property underwent several renovations in the 50s and 60s; in 1958, a second-floor fire caused by smoking construction workers destroyed an 18-foot long Monet painting of water lilies, among other works.
The MoMA has undergone various expansions leading up to its latest vertical endeavor. In 1983 it doubled its gallery space and increased curation space by 30 percent, adding an auditorium, two restaurants, and a bookstore.
In 1997, Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi won the honor of redesigning the space: the project, completed in 2004, doubled the space with an additional 630,000 feet of space, expanding the scope of its educational and research abilities. Taniguchi’s renovation was overall considered a fine example of contemporary architecture.
Now, with the addition of 53W53, the MoMA will be changing its face once more. After acquiring the American Folk Art Museum, MoMA unveiled new plans by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to transform the space into a MoMA addition instead of demolishing it. The renovation will include a retractable glass wall, new gallery space, and free access to the first floor, including the sculpture garden.
This latest facelift coincides with the continued construction of 53W53; it will add 15,500 feet of space in the former Folk Art Museum, plus 39,000 in the new tower. Along with gallery space, the visually impressive skyscraper will include apartments of various sizes and hotel rooms.
It is expected to be completed by 2018.