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Manhattan Museums Play Monopoly

At left, MoMA’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon” (1907) by Picasso, at right, the American Folk Art Museum’s “Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog” (1830-35) by Ammi Phillips playing Monopoly. (image courtesy Hyperallergic’s multi-billion-dollar digital department)

This week has been pretty huge for New York City’s museum community. Newly announced shake-ups mean that the Metropolitan Museum will be taking over the Whitney’s uptown Breuer building as the younger institution heads downtown to a new Renzo Piano-designed space. The Museum of Modern Art is buying the embattled American Folk Art Museum’s 10 year-old building next door, a sale that has become necessary with the Folk Art Museum’s low admission sales and mounting debt, caused in part by the construction of the building. With all this property-buying and hotel museum-building, New York City has become a giant Monopoly board for art institutions. The question remains — who gets the railroads?

Met Meets Whitney

The Whitney’s Breuer building (image via mediabistro.com)

In a deal that begins in 2015, the Metropolitan Museum will be taking over the Whitney’s Madison Avenue building, using the space to display its modern and contemporary collections, bodies of art which, as the New York Times confusedly points out, are among the worst developed and regarded in the Met’s collection. Could the new space give curators a chance to really let the Met’s more recent work shine? This arrangement will last until 2023, when the Met and the Whitney have a chance to renew the deal.

The Met-Whitney deal comes both out of necessity and convenience. The Whitney has long been looking for a way to care for its iconic Marcel Breuer-designed uptown space without necessarily paying for it, as the museum still has to gather funds to pay for its downtown construction. Meanwhile, the Met is planning to renovate the modern and contemporary galleries of its current Fifth Avenue location, so the extra Whitney space, only blocks away, will give it a chance to keep key works on display.

MoMA Mothership’s Landgrab

The Folk Art Museum’s 53rd Street building (image via nymag.com)

The major museums are all expanding into new satellite locations, but one museum is shrinking. The American Folk Art Museum, previously housed in a chunky structure designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien on 53rd Street space next door to MoMA, is being forced to sell its building and property. The Folk Art Museum took on $32 million of debt to finance the construction of the building and flagging admission rates have made the debt seemingly impossible to work off. The sale of the building to MoMA (for an undisclosed amount) will net enough income to pay off the debt, allowing the Folk Art Museum to return to its small space in Lincoln Square, only 1/6th the size of its 53rd Street building.

MoMA is developing a property between its main space and the Folk Art Museum already, so the purchase makes logistical sense. The New York Times cites MoMA director Glenn Lowry saying that with the Folk Art building, the museum would be able to “connect its galleries on both sides of the block.” Still, the future of the Folk Art Museum building is uncertain — will MoMA tear the structure down, preferring to build a new design of its own? Or will the old building be integrated into MoMA’s new architectural plan?

In a tweet, New Criterion critic James Panero points out MoMA’s Napolean real estate complex:

Greg Allen predicts an apocalyptic future for the FAM:

Meanwhile, New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz writes that architecture killed the Folk Art Museum in a just-published essay:

Every one of [the FAM architects’] decisions reflected a total lack of feeling for, even a disdain for, art.

Ouch. Saltz guesses that the building will be destroyed, and seems glad for it. His thought is that MoMA will use the space for offices.

Basically, the only museum not making any real estate moves around Manhattan is the New Museum. Is it just saving up its money to buy more hotels? Is it making a play to collect all the utilities? Maybe it’ll get one of those shiny top hats as its next facade sculpture to celebrate the great Monopoly game.

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