Architecture Killed the American Folk Art Museum

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Architecture Killed the American Folk Art Museum

| architecture, architecture critic | May 12, 2011

Last night, the American Folk Art Museum — that beloved, bedeviled museum on West 53rd Street — confirmed what many of us had feared for years. It is in such deep debt and has such low attendance numbers that it will sell its building and relocate back to a lobby space one sixth its current size near Lincoln Center. Sad as it is to say, this news comes as no surprise, and the culprit is the museum’s physical home.

Despite the many rave reviews the 30,000-square-foot building received when it opened in December 2001, it was immediately clear to many that the building was not only ugly and confining, it was also all but useless for showing art — especially art as visionary as this museum’s. In the past decade, AFAM has mounted shows of some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, including Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger, Adolf Wolfli, and Thomas Chambers. Yet from the outside it looked like a bronzed Kleenex box or a miniature suburban professional building. The inside was worse. Dominated by showy staircases of many scales going in different directions, ill-conceived nooks and niches, the galleries were long narrow corridors or landings, sometimes only a few feet wide, making it impossible to see the art. The largest exhibition spaces had the look of a gloomy cloakroom. The architects responsible for this utter lack of imagination and hubristic mess of starchitectural vanity, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, were praised for their intelligent use of materials. 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.”

This terrible building will be sold to MoMA for an undisclosed sum. I can only imagine that MoMA will use the building for office space — perhaps freeing up much-needed room for its own sorely cramped permanent collection — or tear it down and start again.

We may be at the beginning of a long period of undoing, of rebuilding or destroying architectural failures. In the years to come, those who oversaw and built many new museums and museum wings will have much to answer for. During a period when the West accumulated more wealth than at any time in the history of the world, a vast amount of ill-conceived space for art was constructed, as institutions wasted their energy on atriums and useless entertainment areas. Books and dissertations will be written, panels will be convened, ridicule will be heaped, as our descendants look back at these atrocious buildings and wonder how so much went so wrong. The American Folk Art Museum will probably be the first to be razed, and not the last.

Source: NY Mag

[Update: Now read NY Mag architecture critic Justin Davidson’s rebuttal: Jerry Saltz Has It All Wrong About the American Folk Art Museum]

[Update 2:  Now read Architecture Record article:  Tod Williams Worries That Folk Art Museum Will Be Razed Following Sale to MoMA]

About the author

Drawing upon original ideas and extensive personal and professional experience in the field, David McFadden crafted this article to explore the untapped potential of making historic architectural masterpieces more sustainable. After working at various design practices—both full-time and freelance—and launching his design firm, David identified a significant gap in the industry. In 1984, he founded Consulting For Architects Inc. Careers, an expansive hub designed to align architects with hiring firms for mutual benefit. This platform enables architects to find impactful design work and frees hiring firms from the time-consuming cycles of recruitment and layoffs. David’s innovative approach to employer-employee relations has brought much-needed flexibility and adaptation to the industry. As the Founder and CEO, David has successfully guided his clients and staff through the challenges of four recessions—the early ’80s, early ’90s, early 2000s, the Great Recession, the pandemic, and the current slowdown due to inflation and high-interest rates.

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