Space Odyssey: GrandLife's Guide to the New MoMA
Rediscovered forgotten gems and a 30 percent expansion: We get the skinny on the latest iteration of New York’s long-standing contemporary art institution.
Ringing in its 90th anniversary, and the 80th of its permanent 53rd Street location, MoMA debuted a $450-million expansion on October 21st. Closed while Diller Scofidio + Renfro (of High Line Park fame) collaborated with Gensler and MoMA to increase the gallery space by about 30 percent to 165,000 square feet over the course of four months, the 6-floor building is still the MoMA that millions of annual visitors know and love, yet with welcome, fresh, and instantly obvious differences and upgrades, starting with a roomier lobby.
Retaining some of Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 renovations and atrium, MoMA has relocated the lobby’s museum store to an open and sprawling basement-level space (which has a cool, cylindrical glass elevator for access as well as steps) and brings in much more outside light (and eyes) through expansive multi-floor glass walls and a steel “blade staircase,” while gallery additions include a whole new wing, the Crown Creativity Lab, 11 installations (an exhibition collectively titled “Surrounds”), an integration of cinema within the now multidisciplinary 4th and 5th level galleries, and a 6th floor cafe with outdoor terrace. Tickets remain $25, and so does complimentary entrance on Fridays after 5:30pm.
To get the skinny on the latest iteration of MoMA, we spoke with Ramona Bannayan, Senior Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Collections, and Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film.
What was the biggest challenge for the MoMA team?
Ramona Bannayan: There were a few different kinds of challenges. One: the depth of the collection and just working with it in all its different iterations. You can now look at a Picasso and go around the corner and there’s a Post-It note as a design object. So thinking about the integration of that was a challenge. Light was something we thought about as a result of the mix of mediums, and introducing the moving image into the galleries in a way that didn’t compromise the moving images, but illuminated the space in such a way you can enjoy both and not feel you were in the dark. I like to say there are white boxes, black boxes, aubergine boxes, and some other boxes to allow people’s eyes to adjust. And in terms of natural light, we went back and re-looked at how we thought about light within the galleries, and that was a challenge and a wonder. We had a lot of fun with that, including paint colors and thinking about how all those things worked in the new space.
How much actual physical gutting was done?
RB: The new space was of course completely fresh, and of the existing Tanaguchi designed spaces, the 5th floor was probably 30 percent [gutted], twenty percent on the 4th floor, and then other spaces are down to the studs and designed bespoke for each installation. With the collection galleries, we’re always moving doorways, changing the scale, and adjusting the depth of the doorways as well.
Beyond architecture and lighting, what’s the most profound change to the permanent galleries?
Rajendra Roy: The integration of film in the history of modernism. Literally from the beginning of the chronology, you walk in and see Van Gogh’s Starry Night and take two steps and turn your head and see a movie. That’s a revolution here—many other institutions have integrated media, but they don’t have the collection MoMA does and it feels different here because of the richness of that collection.
While revisiting the collections, did you find any works that had not been shown for a while that represented downtown NYC art culture, like Basquiat?
RB: Well, Basquiat is someone we’re very interested in and have a long-term loan on view. We have a very rich print collection in that arena. But we were looking at a lot of different global histories and making [the galleries] much less canonic and linear in that way, so there’s a large number of works that have never been on view before, either because of the curatorial drive in anticipation of the reopening, so that new acquisitions or ones that my predecessors overlooked, are being looked at fresh.
What about on the film side? Any forgotten gems rediscovered?
RR: Totally. We had basically what would have been the first feature film with an all African-American cast—1914’s Lime Kiln Club Field Day, and a three-minute clip is now displayed in the fifth floor’s Gallery 502. It was lost to history because it was never completed, and it had been in MoMA’s archives for decades. We didn’t know exactly what we had, and to have that on view and acknowledge African-American contributions to American culture through cinema, which had kind of been erased from history and never been on view in MoMA, was a huge change and a discovery.
The robust screening series and festivals like New Directors New Films aside, I presume this has radically changed the film department’s job. Yes?
RR: I’ve always told my team that the film department has the least to lose, because we were never really integrated upstairs and never really had a presence in the main chronology of modernist history. Now we have a very substantial presence in that chronology. We have the cinema program rebooting November 21st, and we have this new presence in the galleries, so it’s learning how to juggle both the daily programming in cinemas and rotational schedule of the galleries.”
Was anyone sad over specific changes to the galleries and MoMA’s layout?
RB: I don’t think so. We’ve been talking and experimenting in small ways over the course of the last few years, and it’s like when you clean your closet and pull everything out and look at it all afresh. There’s that moment when everything is lying around you on the floor and you wonder, why did I start this? But then you start to tease out the things that are very important. Everybody was very much on board with that, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without closing. Every single surface was touched. Absolutely every surface.
During this new construction, did you find anything hidden or lost behind a wall or under a floor?
RB: No, no hidden treasures sadly. Our registrars are too good!
Did you invite any artists to check it out during the process, like Yoko Ono?
RB: Not so much while in progress. I believe Yoko Ono has been by because she was certainly involved with her commission on the third floor, and we’ve had artist days and viewings since.
Is there a big exhibition coming up in 2020 that people should be sure to catch?
RB: In March 2020 we have Donald Judd, which will be the entire 6th floor and is sure to be a marvelous exhibition that people will be excited and surprised by and see him with fresh eyes.
What about the MoMA store being a basement-level space now instead of street-level with its own entrance?
RR: I’ve always loved the basement because that’s where the movie theaters are, so I have no problem with going downstairs. The welcome we offer right now is very open, and it’s very much about seeing into the places you will be experiencing art. It used to feel like you had to make your way, deep into the museum before you actually saw art. Now you can see it from the street. There’s a street-front gallery and all the windows Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Liz Diller created for the new experience has you interacting with what’s inside from outside. This is a very New York institution, and we want to acknowledge that we’re part of the fabric of midtown New York, which still somehow holds mystique for people around the world. I think the new building helps with that a lot.
WORDS Lawrence Ferber
IMAGERY Installation view of Paris 1920s (Gallery 514), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar