The American Folk Art Museum building in April 2011. (image via

The American Folk Art Museum building in April 2011. (image via

There is a growing uproar over the news, first reported in the New York Times yesterday, that the venerable Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will be demolishing the 12-year-old former American Folk Art Museum designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to integrate the site into its masterplan.

Robin Pogrebin explained:

MoMA officials said the building’s design did not fit their plans because the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum. The former folk museum is also set back farther than MoMA’s other properties, and the floors would not line up.

“It’s not a comment on the quality of the building or Tod and Billie’s architecture,” Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director said.

Mr. Lowry personally went to the architects’ offices to inform them of the museum’s decision, a gesture that Ms. Tsien said she appreciated.

When the American Folk Art Museum first opened in the wake of 9/11 people praised the structure and New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote a gushing review, ascribing almost magical qualities to the building:

Folk art denotes point of view: this is the design’s understated message. History, aesthetics, anthropology, religion, psychology, politics, authorial intention: the works on view will try on as many interpretive frames as we care to toss around them. Not all will fit. But the building enshrines the desire to comprehend as an American freedom.

Since that time, the building has entered the contemporary architectural canon and it has been taught in schools and added to textbooks. Williams and Tsien’s transformation of such a small lot was successful, many said, in that it was able to make the small museum stand out and feel independent of the behemoth next door, MoMA.

Understandably, the angry response in the architectural community is pointed. In ArchitectNed Cramer wrote that:

The decision to tear down the folk art museum exposes MoMA to far less flattering characterizations than conservatism [on the part of the institution]. It’s as though the board voted to incinerate a Gerhard Richter painting because it didn’t match the floor tile or fit through the doorway. MoMA must find a way to incorporate the American Folk Art Museum building into its expansion plans. What’s at risk is not only a magnificent work by important contemporary architects, but MoMA’s credibility as a champion of architecture.

A group of architects on Twitter (lead by Ana Maria Leon and Quilian Riano) began floating the idea of a hashtag (#FolkMoMA) that would serve as a hub for commentary on MoMA’s decision. Archinect took up the cause and encouraged people submit their ideas on how the Modern could integrate the smaller building into their aesthetic and design. Though others have suggested (tongue-in-cheek) that a more appropriate hashtag may be #MoMAfolko:

Already, some submissions have been popping up on social media, and the most attractive (so far) is from art director Matthew Lucero, whose rendering finds a way to integrate the two aesthetics:


Matthew Lucero’s suggestion integrates the original facade into MoMA’s sleek glass aesthetic. (reproduced with permission of the artist,


Matthew Lucero’s concept for his rendering.

The bigger question here is whether the building should be saved. Many people, including myself, are torn since the facade may be attractive, but the galleries have always felt awkward and not ideal for a museum. The stern almost medieval looking facade didn’t do the American Folk Art Museum any favors and one has to wonder if it contributed to the lackluster attendance numbers for the institution, which was 160,000 in 2011 (and this includes a second building on the Upper West Side). The low attendance was obviously not due to location or foot traffic considering MoMA’s 2,814,746 attendance in the same year.

In May 2011, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, no fan of the building, wrote:

The building was called astonishing, a shrine, a temple, a Zen masterpiece. In reality, every one of their decisions reflected a total lack of feeling for, even a disdain for, art. Before he died, the Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp, who’d said nice things about the building when it opened, confided to me that my loathing was “probably right.”

Do we save the American Folk Art Museum? As an architecturally significant monument, I believe MoMA should rethink its decision to raze the structure completely. If museums aren’t interested in saving the aesthetic heritage of our city, then we should be concerned about their role in our culture. Surely there’s another way.

And then there’s this:

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

8 replies on “What Should MoMA Do With the American Folk Art Museum?”

  1. How was the development of this building funded? It seems like a waste… especially if it involved tax resources. If that is the case — you can see why many people frown on arts funding in general.

  2. You seem to think that this is the MoMA of the mid-20th century. We are now talking about the Art Barn of Modern Art (ABoMA) of the 21st century.
    We’ll be lucky if they keep a model of the building in their design collection!

  3. I just wanted to make sure you knew that the #folkmoma hashtag and project was not generated by Archinect or by Nam; it was generated by a collective of architects discussing this on Twitter- including @quilian Quilian Riano & @amlblog – Ana Maria Leon, who created the tumblr, and then this tumblr’s call for submissions was posted as a news item on Archinect.

  4. I may have told this anecdote before when it was first announced that the museum was closing, and if so I apologize for repeating myself. Maybe the museum’s lackluster attendance figures had something to do with the way they greeted visitors. On one of my visits, I went up to the woman at the ticket counter when I entered and she said something along the lines of “You know this isn’t MoMA, right? That’s next door.”

  5. Maybe big MOMA shouldn’t have bought the Folk Art building if they didn’t want it. Maybe they should step into the post-modern and enjoy the mix of aesthetics.

  6. I’m giving this my best shot if things are to proceed with mine instead of MoMA’s new Hi rise & razing of the Folk Art Building next to MoMA as an infinitely better innovative Hybrid alternative for the arts. Further Images & descriptions & comments by others on my linked Facebook page.

    Bill Rabinovitch — Simplified Top Image of my new MoMA Hybrid 04-23-13 — includes 2 floors of new galleries plus roof top with smaller enclosed spaces & sculpture garden — including MoMA’s Folk Art Museum – State 3 – conjoined spaces.

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