When crowds push their way into the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art on October 21, the expectations will be sky-high. MoMA—which closed its doors on June 15 to complete a $450 million makeover—is, after all, the home base for the modernist movement and the very embodiment of cultural currency. Much like Paris's Louvre, or London's National Gallery, MoMA is a name that's synonymous with world-class art. Opened in 1939, its walls have entertained hundreds of millions of visitors while evolving, in shape and in size, by the hands of the world's most celebrated architects. During the ’50s and ’60s, Philip Johnson was in charge of its metamorphosis. A decade later it was Cesar Pelli who led the expansion. Then it was a major renovation in 2004 by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi that made the space more capacious. But that's not why people kept coming. It was, of course, to see works by the names they've heard before: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Warhol. And while these timeless giants will be on display when MoMA reopens its doors later this month to a fresh layout—this time courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler—guests should be more excited to view the works by artist they've likely never heard of before.
This latest renovation to New York's second most trafficked museum (in 2018, 7.36 million visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art versus roughly 3 million at MoMA) was two part: One involved architecture and the new walls that went up, while the other incorporated new art that is being hung on those very walls. To be sure, renovating MoMA is different from redesigning nearly any other museum. The task requires converting an iconic space of the 20th century to one that’s more fitting for the 21st century—all within the strict confines and limitations of Manhattan construction codes. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who recently completed The Shed in New York's newest neighborhood, Hudson Yards, in collaborating with Gensler, took on the task of expanding a museum that had been designed and redesigned many times before they arrived to the site.
"We wanted to maintain the original DNA of MoMA that had been created by those previous designs—white-box spaces, bringing glass to the galleries—while also pushing past this, in effect pushing modernism in a new direction, too," says Ben Gilmartin, a partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It was once said by Taniguchi during the 2004 renovation that, were the museum to "raise a lot of money," he would provide good architecture. "Raise even more money," Taniguchi continued, "and I’ll make the architecture disappear." Much can be said for DS+R's work on the $450 million project. "Working in a surgical manner, our overall goal was to create a harmonious experience for the visitors," adds Gilmartin. "In other words, if they weren't paying attention, they wouldn't notice they're moving between multiple buildings."
What Gilmartin is referencing to is MoMA's westward expansion. Now, new galleries have been erected in the former American Folk Art Museum site. From there (walking toward Manhattan's Sixth Avenue), visitors stroll into the base of 53W53, an all-new skyscraper by starchitect Jean Nouvel. While the westward expansion yields additional room (in total, 165,000 square feet more of gallery space), it also better opens the museum to the city that cocoons it. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow ample natural light to flow through, while also allowing the public a peek into the building. "The structure is now better connected to Midtown Manhattan," says Gilmartin. "Before, visibility was a bit constrained. But now, we feel the new design allows for the public to have immediate access to art from the street, as well as when they walk through the doors." To that end, MoMA is now allowing the public free access to the entirety of the ground floor, which includes the sculpture garden.
Ultimately, at MoMA, it's not the walls but the art on those walls that's most important. And while visitors from around the world will continue to huddle around, and take pictures of, Starry Night, Campbell's Soup Cans, and Reclining Nude (read: all painted by dead white males), the renovated MoMA will now include roughly 28% of its works that were done by women, while 21% will have been created by lesser-known artists from outside of Western Europe, the U.S., and Canada. The significance of this can't be overstated, as the decision to include such a diverse field of artists is what has finally pushed MoMA into the 21st century. For those who scoff at the idea of enjoying the works of lesser-known artists, consider the fact that Van Gogh died in 1890 as a nobody in the eyes of the art world. And while Picasso enjoyed a near-full lifetime of success, he was a no-name until he was eventually discovered. (The Spanish-born artist’s first exhibition was when he was 13 years old and it took place in the window of a furniture shop.)
The museum is also implementing a new policy, and the effects should be profound. Every six to eight months, the museum will rotate a selection of art in its galleries. In the immediate, this will allow for those works that will never leave the walls (Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Van Gogh's Starry Night, etc.) to be viewed in a slightly different context, as a new crop of neighbors will alter our perceptions of those works. More important, perhaps, is the fact that more art will be on view to the public—art that would otherwise go relatively unseen. In the past century, and certainly since MoMA opened its doors in 1939, modern art has morphed from an expression meant to move its viewer to contemplation, into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise controlled by a select few. The consequences of this are significant. Imagine if the world's best books were stripped from all the libraries of the world, and hoarded by the wealthiest among us? All of us would lose something, as culture would certainly suffer. This is what makes museums such as MoMA, and specifically their call to rotate the artwork every six months, so vital to our humanity.
Finally, the placement of the art has been altered from MoMA of the past. Take the 5th floor gallery that Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is located. In previous years, the painting was part of a larger story that was chronologically told. The curators at MoMA (smartly) decided to break from that dated mode of storytelling. And a perfect example of this is the work that's now placed next to Picasso's famous depiction of five Catalonian prostitutes painted in a way that display the initial ground rumbles before the earthquake that was Cubism (a movement Pablo Picasso and George Braque would found a few years later).
In the early 1960s, Faith Ringgold, an African-American artist born in Harlem, would visit MoMA to draw inspiration from two Picasso paintings: Guernica and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (While the former was eventually shipped back to Spain, the latter continues to be one of MoMA's most prized possessions.) Ringgold took much inspiration from the works to produce her monumental work, American People Series #20: Die (1967). The painting is six feet tall and 12 feet wide, and depicts white and black men, women, and children running about a blood-splattered canvas. It's one of the most consequential paintings ever produced to confront race relations in the United States in the 1960s. Of course, Picasso and Ringgold ever meeting each other would have been unlikely. But now, in this room, they're able to have a fascinating conversation. And, of course, we can now eavesdrop, too.
If there's no sharper sign for the growing demand of modern art, consider the record-setting prices at auction each month, coupled with the rapid expansion of MoMA's original footprint. In 1939, the building took up 109,100 square feet. Now, in 2019, it has ballooned like the value of a Picasso to 708,000 square feet. Which is to say, MoMA has spent the good part of a century expanding its footprint to fit an entire New York City block. The question is, what will happen when the block inevitably becomes too small?
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest