It’s sad to at least hear the seemingly inevitable news that the Museum of Modern Art will demolish the Museum of American Folk Art, opened only 12 years ago and closed in 2011. Some critics blame the hubristic architecture of the $32 million building for bringing the museum to its financial knees. The acrobatic shaping of space by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and its self-consciously artisanal use of glass, metal, and concrete, wasn’t kind to objects conceived in places and by minds isolated from big-city sophistication. Behind the fatally gnomic grand facade of wrought aluminum It was hard to make sense of “outsider” art that obsessed over inner demons.
But the museum’s design directly addressed the tyranny of the vertical museum. Multi-floor museums, especially small ones, are especially difficult to curate because of the inevitable break in the flow between floors. Williams and Tsien blurred those boundaries by turning wide stairways into display opportunities. It was an engagingly mysterious way to move through the museum, and in that sense it was true to the strangely beautiful and odd objects the museum collected.
Recall the long-vanished Huntington Hartford Museum on Collumbus Circle, where architect Edward Durell Stone tried to ease the floor transitions with an impossible-to-curate spiral of gently stepping galleries. It lives anew as the Museum of Arts and Design, where architect Brad Cloepfil, of Allied Works reconfigured the floors less interestingly but more sensibly and brought in natural light beautifully. Yet it’s hardly what any museum would choose if it had an alternative. The gloomy stairs have long marred the Whitney Museum’s intimidating Marcel Breuer precipice on Madison Avenue.
Surprising and crowd-pleasing exhibitions have made MAD a success. The same can be said of the New Museum in the Bowery, even though elevators dump visitors unceremoniously into the center of its small galleries.
The Folk Art Museum never created programming that lured crowds, and the museum’s board never could raise funds commensurate with its expansion ambitions. (After selling its building to the Museum of Modern Art, the museum regrouped in its former location near Lincoln Center, an antiseptic space that’s also unkind to the collection, though it is at least affordable.)
I lament the loss of the Folk Art Museum because it was architecturally ambitious, a rare enough quality in New York. It was a noble attempt to try and make the vertical work. It is especially lamentable that the agent of its destruction is the Museum of Modern Art, which would no doubt deem it significant enough add to its collection if it would only fit in a gallery.