Why demolishing the former American Folk Art Museum building is a mistake

Time Out's art critic and editor-at-large lays out why MoMA's plan to tear down AFAM's ex-home is a bad idea.

American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the Museum of Modern Art was planning to tear down the former American Folk Art Museum building, designed by the architectural team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The Modern had acquired its next-door neighbor at a fire-sale price in 2011, when AFAM could no longer service the debt it incurred to finance construction of the edifice. AFAM simply couldn’t afford the payments anymore, and wound up retreating to its much-smaller Lincoln Square space once MoMA's purchase was finalized.

There were a number of reasons for AFAM’s failure to achieve big-league institutional status with its building. For one thing, it occupied a narrow lot, resulting in a shoebox interior that offered awkward sight lines. It felt crowded even with only a few people there. But the main culprit, arguably, for the demise of AFAM's hopes for expansion was MoMA itself. The Folk Art Museum management probably figured that proximity to one of New York’s biggest tourist attractions would create a spillover effect that would goose the size of its own audience. In fact, that opposite occurred, as anyone who has spent an exhausting day trooping through MoMA could have probably guessed. (You barely have enough energy to the get to the subway, let alone visit another museum.) Basically, MoMA sucked up all the cultural oxygen on the block.

And now the fine people who run the Modern have decided to add insult to injury by tearing down AFAM’s failed vision. According to MoMA director Glenn Lowry, it's a matter of aesthetics. The AFAM building is running afoul of plans to erect a crystalline tower on MoMA's western flank, designed by French starchitect Jean Nouvel, a deal that includes additional space for MoMA. That's on top of MoMA's 2004 addition, which doubled its size.      

AFAM’s bronzed Cubistic facade, it turns out, just wouldn’t fit in with the overall scheme going forward. What’s preferred, apparently, is a seamless street wall of glass between MoMA’s current location and the Nouvel building. (As if we haven't seen anything like that in Manhattan before.) Perhaps knowing that he was beginning to sound like a dick, Lowry told the Times that there was also the practical matter of lining up the interior floor plates between the structures. That’s bullshit, since the necessary alignments could be achieved while still maintaining the Williams-Tsien exterior.

What we’re really talking about here is the MoMA’s board’s desire to impose an official, corporate-minimalist style on the whole project—which, as a matter of tone-deafness, isn't all that far removed from Nero’s reputed decision to make room for his Golden House by burning down Rome. (By the way, it's no longer ironic to note how modernism, once revolutionary, is now the default expression of money and power; irony, in this case, was lapped a long time ago.)

It would be nice if Glenn Lowry's arrogant-sounding announcement provoked a public furor. Perhaps then, he'd go back to his out-of-touch board, and attempt to dissuade them from committing this travesty. It's doubtful, but MoMA at least should have the decency to preserve the Folk Art Museum facade somehow. It's built of panels that could be easily disassembled and, given its sculptural qualities, could exist on view somewhere as a relief or a freestanding piece. Maybe not within the new, improved MoMA, since it's already been judged as unsuitable for the Modern's vaunted tastes, but what about at Lincoln Square (or Center)? Perhaps it could be donated to the Met, which is planning to expand into the Whitney's Madison Avenue home once that institution decamps for the south end of the High Line. In both tone and texture, the AFAM facade would go well with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney building. Why not install it in the Whitney’s “moat,” assuming it would fit? (Better, certainly, than some Jeff Koons.) Absent that, there's always Central Park. But clearly the AFAM facade deserves a home—as a monument to broken dreams, sure, but also to art trumping money.