Museum of Arts & Design Thinks Outside the Box

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The New York Sun

When the Museum of Arts and Design opens in its new home on September 27, it will be the end of one journey for the institution and the beginning of another.

It’s the end of a period of institutional soul-searching, and of a years-long battle over the site, at 2 Columbus Circle, and the museum’s construction plans. Today, only the exterior shape and a few of the so-called lollipops of the windowless Edward Durell Stone building, which was constructed there in 1964, are still visible. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture has given the building a new, iridescent façade of glazed terra-cotta tiles. On the lower floors, a ribbon of cuts brings light and views into the galleries. The upper floors, which hold offices, education programs, event space, and a restaurant that will open next spring, have floor-to-ceiling windows.

At the same time, the opening represents the start of a new, and challenging, era for the museum, which was founded in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. (It changed its name in 1979 to the American Craft Museum and then changed it again in 2002.) The museum’s budget in the new building will increase to $9 million, from $5.5 million. And then there are the higher expectations that come with moving into a much larger and more prominent home.

“There are a lot of eyes watching the kind of shows we do and the education programs [we offer],” the museum’s director, Holly Hotchner, said in an interview. The challenge is “delivering on the promises that we’ve made in terms of our name and in taking a much bigger site.”

When Ms. Hotchner arrived at the museum in 1996, it was having financial difficulties and had seen its admissions drop. After leading the institution through a process of self-examination — including questioning whether it should simply close — Ms. Hotchner managed to reinvigorate it, bringing in new curatorial and financial staff, adding new people to the board, and increasing admissions to around 300,000 people a year.

Once it was decided that the museum should continue, however, it became clear that its facilities — a mere 17,000 square feet on West 53rd Street, in what Ms. Hotchner called “the beautiful shadow of the Museum of Modern Art” — were inadequate. There were no galleries in which to show the permanent collection, let alone amenities such as a café.

In 2002, the city agreed to sell 2 Columbus Circle, originally built as the A&P heir Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art, to the museum. Legal battles with preservationists, who objected to altering Stone’s original building, delayed the sale until 2005. The museum paid $17 million; it will get a $2 million discount if it opens on time, which it is currently on track to do.

Construction cost an additional $73 million. The building will be called the Chazen Building, in recognition of Simona and Jerome A. Chazen. Mr. Chazen is chairman emeritus of the museum’s board and chairman of its capital campaign. The entry hall will be called the Barbara Tober Atrium, after the museum’s chairwoman, and the galleries will be called the Nanette L. Laitman Galleries, after the museum’s president.

Mr. Cloepfil’s goal was to open the building up and “transform it to fit the city today,” he said in an interview. “The building was a solid cast-concrete box,” he explained. “We literally just cut it open, with concrete saws, [and] restructured it so that it would be filled with light and would have views on all three sides.”

As for meeting the larger budget, Ms. Hotchner said, “We’re shoring up on all fronts. We’re going to have more earned income, through the restaurant, through rentals [of both the theater and the event space on the seventh floor], and the store will be twice as big.” The museum has planned — conservatively, Ms. Hotchner said — for 400,000 visitors in its first year. It has raised its admission price to $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors, up from $9 and $7, respectively, in its old home.

The museum has raised $13 million for an endowment and plans to raise another $7 million. It has also added about a dozen new board members in the last five years (with the additions offset to some degree by attrition of older members).

“I don’t say it’s easy. I don’t say it’s a done deal,” Ms. Hotchner said. “We’re very much a work in progress.” If the programming proves too ambitious, “we may have to do a few fewer shows.”

The building will open with three exhibitions. “Permanently MAD: Revealing the Collection” will include around 250 works from the collection in clay, glass, metal, wood, and mixed media. Some of the artists in the collection include Dale Chihuly, Faith Ringgold, Jack Lenor Larsen, Roy Lichtenstein, and Cindy Sherman. A thematic exhibition, “Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary,” explores the reuse of manufactured objects in Contemporary work. It will include a site-specific piece by the Ghana-born artist El Anatsui, made of foil from liquor bottles, as well as works by Fred Wilson, Ingo Maurer, Xu Bing, and others.

Additionally, an exhibition in the museum’s new Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewelry Gallery, called “Elegant Armor: The Art of Jewelry,” will include works of jewelry from 1948 to the present.

The galleries incorporate new technology, with interactive screens designed by Pentagram, that allows visitors to explore works in the collection. Another screen on the first floor will draw people’s attention on the street.

The building also has a whole floor, the sixth, devoted to education, with studios where artists will work while visitors look on. Classes, including many for public school students, will include both visits to the gallery and hands-on projects.

The museum changed its name in 2002 to recognize that the boundaries among “art,” “craft,” and “design” were all blurring, Ms. Hotchner said. A lot of Contemporary artists are very interested in material, she said. At the same time, the museum also collects some mass-produced objects, which it did not when it opened in the 1950s.

Ms. Hotchner said that the interest in design is also high now, providing the museum a great opportunity to find new audiences. “We have a real chance to attract younger collectors and a younger generation, which every museum wants to do, but I think we are in a position to actually achieve that,” she said. “Photography 30 years ago was sort of in the position we are today.”

The New York Sun

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