Closing the MoMA’s Dedicated Design Galleries: New Opportunities or Foreclosed Possibilities?

The Museum of Modern Art announced it will be eliminating its architecture and design galleries. At what cost?

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980, on view at MoMA’s architecture and design galleries in 2015. Organized by then-curator Barry Bergdoll with Patricio del Real, Carlos Eduardo Comas, and Jorge Francisco Liernur.

Courtesy Thomas Griesel/ ©2015 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

UPDATE 4/19: MoMA has responded to the speculation regarding the reconfiguration with a letter from Martino Stierli, the chief curator of architecture and design. Scroll down to read the letter in full.

The Museum of Modern Art announced this week that it will be getting rid of its architecture and design galleries, along with generally reorganizing its collections, during MoMA’s expansion on West 53rd Street. This announcement has been met with fear and disgust from the architecture and design community. Some of this fear may be grounded in (what some perceive as) the institution’s current crisis of judgement, epitomized by a series of recent missteps—in exhibitions (Björk anyone?), the dismantling of the Billie Tsien and Tod Williams’ American Folk Art Museum building in 2015, and the current, contentious expansion of the museum. MoMA has been publicly denounced by increasingly frustrated and vocal critics for these and other decisions made over the past few years.

MoMA was one of the first major arts institutions to dedicate space to architectural exhibitions and, from its founding in 1929, was a key player in promoting Modernism to the museum-going public. Likewise, MoMA became a tastemaker in the design world by opening its displays to the more commonplace trappings of cultural objects. Its curators pushed visitors to understand and appreciate architecture and design in a way that few other cultural institutions could. From its leading role in promoting the Bauhaus and defining the International Style in the early 1930s to its WWII-era displays for the war effort, to Bernard Rudofsky’s idiosyncratic exhibitions on everyday design such as Are Clothes Modern? (1947) or Architecture without Architects (1964), MoMA’s architecture and design departments were instrumental in public appreciation of everyday design and the built environment.

MoMA’s leading design influence continues despite increasing competition from specialized museum collections devoted to these areas. Recently, Barry Bergdoll’s final exhibition as chief curator of architecture and design, Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980 (2014), opened new territory for scholarship on the region’s architecture. Similarly, Paola Antonelli’s Design and Violence (2014–15) displayed cutting-edge thinking on the intersections of design and politics, and she has led initiatives to incorporate digital art and artifacts into the collections. MoMA continues to be a leader in shifting the way that scholars and the public understand architecture and design.

Critics fear that the shift from dedicated medium-specific galleries to multi-use spaces will mean the death or diminishing importance of architecture and design at MoMA. As William Menking notes, writing for the Architect’s Newspaper, the fear is that “architecture will be sidelined and used only to create and frame connections, not to drive a particular movement.” I too, fear that while items from the architecture and design collections will be featured in thematic exhibitions, they will not be exhibited with the depth or contextual rigor (nor the frequency of display) that they currently enjoy.

The proposed removal of the “medium-specific” galleries will no doubt cause fear amongst the curators, too, and could create a situation where they have to compete for the same exhibition spaces. The real battle may be about carving space in the exhibition program rather than just a fight over one’s own gallery space. If the reorganization leads to better, more interdisciplinary exhibitions, this may be a good thing. However, if it comes at the expense of diminishing the showcasing of architecture and design, it may be at too great a cost. Personally, I will not miss the Terence Riley-designed galleries themselves, but fear for the status of the collections under this reorganization. They could quite easily become filler rather than the main attraction in future exhibitions—compromising an important part of MoMA’s educational mission.

However, without any definitive plans for the future use of the architecture and design collections, these fears may be unfounded. MoMA insists that the design and architecture collections are not going away, and all we know is that the architecture and design galleries will be removed as MoMA goes forward with the Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed remodel. What comes next has yet to be determined. It is important to remember that architecture and design have always had a place at MoMA. Many of the biggest design exhibitions, such as the recent Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (2013) or Emilio Ambasz’s infamous Italy: The New Domestic Landscape (1972),  were not relegated to dedicated architecture and design galleries but hosted in the museum’s larger galleries and, so crossed the divide between art and design. Ultimately, the redesign may offer more space, not less, to design and architecture. The redesigned galleries system could be more flexible to the needs of the institution, perhaps giving curators more opportunities to create traveling exhibitions from the collection, develop cross-institutional collaborations, or host larger design-focused exhibitions at MoMA.

Architectural history and architectural exhibition-making are inseparable from art history and art exhibitions, but in recent years there has been a push to carve a distinct territory and develop particular disciplinary practices. With rising public interest, institutions have been making space for architecture in their programming. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the first time in its history, has an official architecture curator, and, in Los Angeles, a dedicated Architecture and Design Museum (founded 2001) recently moved into a larger space. At the same time, leading art institutions are folding art, design, media, pop culture, and architecture collections into large thematic multimedia exhibitions with increasing frequency—take, for example, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 in 2011 or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Field Conditions in 2011 and Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area in 2012. In this new curatorial environment of visual culture, what is the future of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art? While at first glance the growth of dedicated design and architecture departments and the emergence of multimedia thematic exhibitions seem contradictory, the net positive result is increased public exposure to architecture and design.

With MoMA’s medium-specific gallery system as it is currently, architecture and design have been separated from other types of art. If done correctly, the reorganization could elevate rather than diminish the status of architecture and design at MoMA. I hope for the sake of the collection, curators, researchers, and the public that this is what comes to pass.

You can follow Marty Wood on twitter at @uselessunless

Works Referenced:

  1. Ellen Gamerman, Under Fire, MoMA Vows to Learn from Björk Show,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2015
  2. Randy Kennedy, “MoMA’s Expansion and Director Draw Critics,” New York Times, April 21, 2014
  3. Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround, University of Chicago Press, 2013
  4. Felicity D Scott, Architecture or Techno-Utopia, The MIT Press, 2010
  5. William Menking, “MoMA to Abolish Architecture and Design Galleries,” The Architects Newspaper, April 12, 2016

Letter from Martino Stierli​, chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA

Dear Friends of Architecture and Design,

As you all know, The Museum of Modern Art is currently undergoing an ambitious renovation and expansion project. As part of the renovations in the current buildings, the collection galleries on the 3rd floor of the Museum, which include the Architecture gallery, have been closed over the course of the last few weeks. These galleries will reopen in a new configuration in early 2017 that will consist of two new, large exhibition spaces for various special exhibitions, including, for example, in the summer of 2017, the exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright that we have been intensely working on for many months. Meanwhile, the former galleries for the design collection on the 3rd floor have already undergone a gentle reconfiguration, and are currently hosting A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond, our special exhibition on the contemporary architecture scene around Toyo Ito and SANAA. In the fall of 2016, this exhibition will be followed by a collection-based show on modern interiors, which will feature many of our recent major acquisitions, including the study-bedroom furnishings from the Maison du Brésil at the Cité Universitaire in Paris, designed by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, a group of Eileen Gray’s original personal furnishings, and outstanding examples of furniture designed by Lina Bo Bardi.

In the last few days, a number of articles and commentaries in the architectural press and social media have surfaced that suggest that the Department of Architecture and Design will no longer have any exhibition spaces and that our rich collection will no longer be on view. While our former collection galleries will indeed be transformed into new multi-use spaces, the A+D collection, special exhibitions, and other programs will continue to have a strong presence in the Museum throughout the renovation and expansion and certainly in the galleries in the new building once it is completed. I would like to enumerate some of the many A+D initiatives that our team will be presenting in the next couple of years:

Juliet Kinchin is working on a substantial, collection-based exhibition on modern interiors (as described above) that will open in October 2016 on the 3rd floor; In the fall of 2016, our new colleague Sean Anderson will present a collection-based show on the topic of borders and refugees, a timely issue that is currently receiving a lot of attention in architecture circles and beyond; In the spring of 2017, we are planning an exhibition on the early computer age that will highlight some of our recent acquisitions and strong holdings in contemporary design; Unpacking the Archive: New Perspectives on Frank Lloyd Wright at 150, curated by Barry Bergdoll, will be shown in the new 3rd floor galleries in the summer of 2017 (as described above); Paola Antonelli is working on a major exhibition on fashion and technology titled Items: Is Fashion Modern?, which will open to the public in December 2017; The Architecture of Socialist Yugoslavia, 1945-1991, the first survey show on architectural experimentation in former Yugoslavia, curated by Martino Stierli, will be shown in the summer of 2018.

Moreover, we will continue to present a variety of public programs for architecture and design audiences while we are under construction. These include our ongoing “From the Vault” series, monthly or bi-monthly conversations with contemporary practitioners on objects from our rich collection, and a large three-day symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of Robert Venturi’s “gentle manifesto” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published by MoMA, which is scheduled for November 10-12, 2016 and is being co-organized with the University of Pennsylvania.

Being able to present our collection works in widely accessible gallery spaces not previously available to A+D will give us a great opportunity to address a wider audience that may not have visited our dedicated galleries on the 3rd floor in the past. It will also ensure that our collection rotations will be more fully integrated into the Museum’s overall program. I am personally convinced that these new parameters bring new and exciting opportunities for our department to engage and be in dialogue with our department’s dedicated constituencies in the architecture and design communities as well as with the wider general museum-going audience. These measures reflect my personal conviction, as well as that of my colleagues, that the Museum should be a living organism in which to see and learn about architecture and design as well as the other arts in ever-changing constellations rather than in a static and homogeneous display.

The Museum’s curatorial team will use the next few years to experiment with new ways in which to bring the vast and diverse holdings of the Museum’s collection into new and meaningful encounters and dialogues. Juliet Kinchin and I were involved in the collection survey of the 1960s currently on view on the 4th floor, which includes a higher proportion of objects from the A+D collection than from any other curatorial department.

Some of you will wonder how we will present our collections in the new building which will likely be completed in 2019. I am deeply involved in the project, along with the other chief curators, and we are studying the opportunities that the expansion, with approximately 50,000 more square feet for exhibitions and the collection and a 30% increase in gallery space for the collection, offers. I can assure you that my colleagues and I are fully committed to presenting our rich collection in a way that will do justice to the specific needs of each medium, including architecture and design, while making visible the many meaningful connections among the arts. It is a strategy that we think of as “both/and” – we want both medium dedicated galleries and more broadly comprehensive ones, and we are dedicated to achieving this.

Our goals in pursuing a strong curatorial vision are to show our collection and contribute to scholarship and discourse at the very highest levels. On behalf of all of us in the Department of Architecture and Design, I sincerely thank you for your continued support and interest in our work.

With warm regards,

Martino Stierli

The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design

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