MoMA Moves to Long Island City

On June 29, when MoMA QNS opened its doors in the renovated Swingline staple factory in Long Island City, MoMA’s Manhattan building became a sort of archaeological  resource for the museum’s 21st-century incarnation. Until 2004 - 05 the museum will be located at 33rd Street and Queens Blvd.

Providing about half as much space as the Manhattan site, this low-lying loft building is a state-of-the-art facility that now houses many of MoMA’s departments, including galleries for permanent and rotating collections, offices, study centers, workshops and art storage. A museum press release announced that MoMA’s role in Queens will remain remarkably consistent with that formed by Alfred Barr: to go beyond painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts to embrace architecture, industrial design, theater, and movies.

The Queens and Astoria press as well as local political leaders have welcomed the invigorating presence of four museums. Other than the new MoMA and its already establish affiliate P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, there’s the Noguchi Museum, temporarily and handsomely housed a few blocks away, as its original building awaits renovation; and there is the anticipated move of the African Museum, one floor above the temporary Noguchi. Queens leaders have even suggested the establishment of a MoMA satellite exhibiton space in the Swingline building, rather than a return to storage space in 2005.

Yet while the celebrations go on, questions remain about MoMA, concerning: the museum’s relationship to a modern aesthetic; the ongoing impact of the museum’s recently reshaped structure as a corporate entity; and its relationship to its employees, especially during a period of  transition and necessary contraction.

When MoMA began to look for alternative transitional space in Manhattan and found real estate to be too expensive, the museum began to consider the Swingline building, which it had used for storage during its period of transition. The Swingline factory, a blocky structure now painted blue with a large MoMA logo that can be viewed from the 7 elevated train, sits alongside factories and diners, on a dusty industrial side street. The interior is handsomely designed by Michael Malzin (Los Angeles) in collaboration with Cooper Richardson & Partners (New York). In keeping with modernist conception of movement through space and shifting relationships, the four exhibits on view transition into one another, seamlessly creating a sense of continuity and flow.

The To be Looked At show of the permanent collection returns the museum to a chronological-type approach, after its forays into interpretive selections during three millennial show: Open Ends, Making Choices, and Modern Starts. Curated by Kynaston McShine, MoMA’s Acting Chief Curator, Looked provides a number of thoughtfully discordant moments. Meanwhile, the Autobodies show represents the sleek and sexy face of industrialism. A Walk Through Queens photographs by Rudy Burkhardt reflect starkly poetic images of gas stations, limitless rubble and endless sky as backdrops for a car, a house, a child. The conceptual concerns of the In Tempo show range from a prosaic literalness to pinpointed precision, and provide a venue for a number of emerging and established artists to experiment in.

Finally, Project 74, a videotaped procession of maquettes of museum objects on biers across the Queenborough Bridge, has the flavor of a saints procession. Acquisitions by the museum, based on recommendations by curators to a committee, are planned to continue during the next few years.

While navigating the unexpected inclines of broad ramps in this elegantly redesigned industrial space, we shouldn’t think back a couple of years, and remember the PASTA (Professional and Administrative Staff Union) local 2110, and the impact of the strike and the move in general on MoMA employees, both those represented by PASTA and the other five unions that had contracts with the museum. Under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers, during the spring and summer 2000 PASTA struck at a very pivotal moment in the MoMA’s history.

Under Glen Lowry, who had been hired as the museum’s director during the early '90s, for the first time in MoMA history the roles of director and aesthete had been divided. Fundraising and administrative work had become too burdensome for a brilliant scholar like Richard Oldenburg, his predecessor. Above all, Lowry was an Islamic scholar from Harvard, and had formerly been the Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he had overseen both an ambitious expansion and dealt with budget cuts. Creating six deputy director positions, Mr. Lowry acted on his belief in American’s swollen corporate salary structure; some of his hires, like Michael Malguchi, who is not the Head of External Affairs, were paid far more than longstanding curators. Overseeing a capital campaign larger than any other in the museum’s recent history, Lowry was in the process of raising $650 million when the strike began.

Against an institution that had five other unions with no-strike clauses, PASTA struck for wages and health benefits, but it also did so in anticipation of the current transition to a new building, then two years in the future. At the end of a grueling four months, the two sides negotiated an agreement and went back to work. Importantly, PASTA won a severance package that gave its members two weeks severance per each year they have worked, an increase from the one-week pay per year that the previous contract had stipulated. The union also won “recall rights,” extending the period in which a PASTA member could be recalled to work in relation to the building project. Finally, it won an “agency shop,” where new employees pay agency dues that in turn contribute to negotiating costs toward future health benefits and wage increases. By this method, the union anticipated full membership rather than optional membership, as new employees entered the museum’s workforce.

Apparently, Director Glenn Lowry has dealt differently with each of the MoMA unions. Layoffs in professional staff have been disproportionate in relations to layoff in other departments, like management. Members of the other unions, like 32BJ, which represents the service workers including both guards and housecleaning employees, can be sent to other jobs. In the meantime, the art handlers union continues with a full staff, as an essential aspect of the transitional process. MoMA management has reneged on some of its severance agreements with PASTA, citing layoffs due to budget reasons as opposed to building status. Layoff in the Film Department began in January, continuing into the year. In contrast to the 50 members of its 250 members that PASTA lost, management lost three. Out of these 50 people, some received recall rights, but many did not. The Union has filed charges with the National Relation Labor Board.

The MoMA’s film series will be moved to Historic Gramercy Theater in October, but film preservation, and the important Film Stills Archive and study center has been placed in storage in Pennsylvania. The good news is that MoMA plans to continue its Educational outreach. The Visual Learning Skills approach, depending on how far it reached into the community could make a difference in helping develop students from casual thinkers into insightful observers who can translate their reflections to other subject areas.

Since MoMA boasts of having “the greatest collection of modern art in the world,” the changing of the guard in terms of its highest level curatorial staff will have an impact on its future. Kirk Varnedoe, Chief Curator since 1988, has recently left for his appointment as an art historian at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Historical Studies at Princeton. Mentored by William Rubin, Varnedoe liked modern art because it adhered to “the idea of the experimental, of individual vision.” His subtly revisionist approach rendered the relationship between modernism and sociological approaches problematic. The third Chief Curator, he pursued the questions of “what makes modern art modern” as well as the extent of modernism’s admiration and appropriation of “primitive art” into its assimilation of “low art” in A Fine Disregard. Under his tenure as curator, the museum bought The Yellow Room by Matisse, and Van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin, as well as many contemporary works.

Robert Storr recently resigned to become a professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. As a curator, he also tread a fine line between modernism and the more pluralist approach, organizing exhibits that intended to distinguish between, as well as include both, aesthetic pleasure and political context. The Dislocations show in 1991 was MoMA’s first show of installation work that included more women than the standard 80/20 percent ratio. Here Storr was responding to the actual demographics of that period. But as a person with a relatively median income, Storr had moved his family to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he crossed the color line on a daily basis. As a result, Storr thought that Alfred Barr’s idea of Modern Art included diversity, to which he brought his own personal touch, through his surprisingly broad connoisseurship. Storr maintained that the parameters of modernism had narrowed from its original conception into an academic one during the '60s and '70s, and so looked for a more contemporary pluralism.

Storr’s very successful Gerhardt Richter show, distinguished by its neutral aesthetic of mechanically-derived images, may have been an appropriate farewell to the MoMA’s 20th century incarnation, as well as to the shattered dreams of modern utopias. A quote from Storr’s A Rock and a Hard Place (1995) may be prescient:

Modern art was made for controversy, however, the institutions created to house and display it are ill-prepared to be forums for that controversy when it inevitably erupts.

MoMA’s transition to Queens, and then back to Manhattan, is at a crucial time. What is at stake are questions concerning not only the paradigm and lifespan of Modern Art, but the museum’s core relationship to profit and corporate structure, as opposed to the artists and the professionals who make great efforts to bring them to us. Even as the museum deploys corporate types of management strategies, it nevertheless must engage in a curatorial tradition that can be renewed at each juncture. And this renewal can only happen if the museum shows appropriate economic and professional respect to those who work to make it great.

Contributor

Rachel Youens

Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.

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