How MoMA got woke

Installation view of Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Gallery 503), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp  

Four months of complete closure and over $400 million spent: that’s what it took the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to relaunch last October, the year of its 90th anniversary. Today, the transformation is both a physical and conceptual one. MoMA is now a freer, more open space (courtesy architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler). The curators have also adopted a new way of designing the galleries — launching off the basic springboard of time, they have played with it in ways that tell us new stories of the history of modern art. “Although the galleries are still organised [to a great degree] chronologically, the new enfilade not only allows, but encourages, detours, digressions, shortcuts, and complete immersions, allowing each visitor to construct his or her own experience of the collection,” says Glenn D Lowry, the David Rockefeller Director of MoMA.

In some ways, it appears that this re-telling is a concerted effort at being woke, to being alert to racial and other social injustices, and actively working to repair or address them. “Old favourites now neighbour compelling artworks formerly often overlooked, whether those by women or African Americans, by practitioners in Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, by the self-taught or the [literally] provincial, or by those who trafficked in the aesthetics of a ‘minor’ ism or joined the ‘wrong’ movement of their day,” he says, adding that “the new hang is, above all, inclusive”.

Interiors of MoMA

Interiors of MoMA   | Photo Credit: Iwan Baan

A case in point: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a 1907 Cubist oil painting and one of the museum’s most-visited pieces, that’s hung adjacent to American People Series #20: Die, a 1967 oil on canvas by Faith Ringgold. On the one hand, Picasso — whose Demoiselles depicts prostitutes in Barcelona in the nude — has been famously criticised for appropriating African art into his works, and on the other, Ringgold, who chronicles racist rioting and undocumented killing of African American people in Die, is an 89-year-old, New York-based African-American woman multimedia artist known for her narrative quilts. This subliminal messaging comes through across the floors.

An example of a less political pairing perhaps is the Indian Modernist master VS Gaitonde’s Painting, 4 (1962) with the Russian-American Mark Rothko’s No. 10 (1950) in an exhibit called Planes of Color. It brings together artists, for whom “colour was an essential, expressive tool, capable of evoking a range of responses”.

Glenn D Lowry

Glenn D Lowry  

In an interview with Weekend, Lowry discusses what MoMA’s conceptual shift in museum display means, how they plan to engage with the world, and how they intend to be nimble in a digital age. Edited excerpts:

You talked about an almost bi-yearly re-hang of the exhibits. What will these be based on?

l Our new model of presentation should be understood as a work in progress, an evolving look at an increasingly inclusive approach to the art of our time. Today, contemporary artists challenge us in many of the same ways that artists of the avant-gardes of 50 or 100 years ago [many of whom are now regarded as modern masters] challenged viewers of their day. That we have come to accept the achievements of Picasso and Matisse, Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer, does not necessarily mean that their work is either fully understood or that this acceptance is universal.

For MoMA, this means that its collection must be a laboratory where the public can explore the relationship between contemporary art and the art of the immediate past, in an ongoing effort to define modern art. By continually rearranging the objects in the collection and encouraging visitors to create their own paths of exploration, the museum has created a space in which many individual stories can be developed and realised.

It seems that MoMA is trying to change the way museums fashion themselves.

l This [renovation] project increases our gallery space by 30%, transforms many of our public spaces into more welcoming areas, and better connects the museum to the urban fabric of mid-town Manhattan, by creating galleries that open on to the street.

But the real value of this project is the new platform it creates for MoMA’s curatorial staff to rethink the experience of the museum.

The challenge before us today is how to create a museum that is at once global in its perspective yet rooted in New York; that is sensitive to divergent artistic practices yet focussed on the artists and ideas it most believes in; that is fundamentally participatory yet enables individual experiences. The addition of more than 40,000 sq ft of space has allowed MoMA to realise a long-held dream: the creation of a series of carefully-choreographed galleries that enables a synthetic display of the collection, one that highlights the creative frictions and influences that spring from seeing all the disciplines — painting, sculpture, architecture, design, photography, media, performance, film, and works on paper — together.

  • The revamp of the MoMA has relied heavily on donors and trustees. This includes billionaires Glenn Dubin and Leon Black, after whom MoMA has also named two of its galleries. Around the time of the reopening, the Guerrilla Girls, a popular anonymous feminist art group had left protest signs against these “BIG donors with BIG ties to Jeffery Epstein”, the high-profile financier and convicted sex-offender who died in his cell in contentious circumstances in August 2019. The Museum has declined to comment on this.

The internet boom has meant a serious decentralisation in accessibility of art. Institutions like MoMA have been at the forefront of engaging with this, participating in initiatives like Google Art and Culture. How will you stay on top of this in 2020?

l One of the questions that interests me most is ‘How could a museum start to think digitally?’ What would happen if we gave up ownership and thought about sharing? If we stopped concentrating on collecting and focussed on programming? If we didn’t think so much about display, but about interpretation? Well, then, we would be transformed. We would be what I’m interested in, which is a digital institution.

It would lead to different kinds of exhibitions and different kinds of relationships. You can imagine your projects differently, if you can teach yourself to think digitally. I believe we’re exploring those questions with all that we do in the new MoMA.

The writer was in New York at the invitation of NYC & Company

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 3:30:44 PM |

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