Fuse Museum Notes: The American Folk Art Museum goes down, Harvard Art Museums go dark

Significant changes in the world of the art museum can trigger roiling controversy or transpire in problematic quiet.

By Harvey Blume

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum — “The Museum of Modern Art has told the little museum next door to ‘folk off.'”

In New York City, the imminent demolition of the American Folk Art Museum has triggered an uproar likely to leave echoes and scars. In 2001, the AFAM moved from its small, storefront quarters on Broadway to a building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. AFAM houses the main collection of the works of Henry Darger, who, though he could never have suspected it, having died unknown to the art world, was foundational for the genre that came to be known as outsider art. The AFAM always had some Darger on display and regularly mounted exhibits such as “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” unlikely to be seen elsewhere.

The building was an aesthetic achievement in its own right. New Yorker writer Peter Schjeldahl called it “a pleasure machine”, with a “jazz-like” structure. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger thought its “brooding, somber façade. . . made of folded planes of hammered bronze, combines monumental dignity with the image of delicate handcrafting.” I always looked forward to visiting AFAM, not only for the contents of the main galleries but also for the nooks and crannies, including the knobby stone-worked stairwell alcoves that doubled as mini-galleries. The building seemed perfectly suited to the idiosyncratic art it showcased. It was hard to imagine its existence just west of Museum Mile could be so fleeting.

But AFAM was saddled with two major problems from the start. The first was debt, an inability to repay loans taken to fund construction. The second was that its next-door neighbor was none other than that ever-expanding dynamo, the Museum of Modern Art.

When MoMA purchased the AFAM building in 2009, there was hope that though it would no longer be dedicated to outsider and folk art, all or part of the structure would be retained and integrated into MoMA’s manifest destiny. But MoMA, a place of cavernous cubes and relentless right angles, had no use for any aspect of its odd, angular neighbor except, that is, for the ground it stood on.

There is irony in the fact it fell to the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), innovative in its own right (responsible for the Boston ICA, Manhattan’s High Line Park, and the remodeling of Lincoln Center) to affirm and deliver the verdict. In early January, Elizabeth Diller declared that after due diligence, her firm had found that the effort to at least preserve the building’s distinctive bronze facade was, well, “Facadism.”

Critics and the public derided MoMA’s decision and DS+R’s role in it. Peter Schjeldahl wrote: “That MoMA, with the first and largest architecture and design collections in the world, wants to destroy its notable neighbor has enraged architects, critics and preservationists.” As for DS+R, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Martin Filler concluded the firm had undergone “a dire transformation from vanguard mavericks to corporate apparatchiks.” Filler scorned as disingenuous a proposal MoMA made to sweeten the deal by opening its sculpture garden to the public, free of charge. “Such populist largesse,” he wrote, “seems ironic coming from an institution that in 2004 raised its entry fee to a then-unprecedented $20—which set off a copycat nationwide rise in museum ticket prices—and increased the tariff to $25 in 2011.”

MoMA’s decision prompted Paul Goldberger to recall a story he “once heard of a woman in Dallas who told her art dealer that she was sorry, but she couldn’t keep that Matisse after all because her decorator had decided it was the wrong blue.” For Goldberger, “the idea that a building of this quality would be torn down, and that the agent of its destruction would be another cultural institution, is not easy to fathom.”

The Daily News captured the prevailing view when it wrote, “The Museum of Modern Art has told the little museum next door to ‘folk off.'”

The change occurring in the Boston area museum world would seem, by and large, to bear little comparison to the controversy in Manhattan. The local changes pertain to Harvard University, which owns one of the great art collections in the area, and aspires to make that fact better known.

A rendering of the new Fogg Art Museum

Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project. Rendering, from Broadway and Prescott Street. Photo: Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

The Harvard Art Museums are approaching the completion of a major renovation. With Renzo Piano, best known in the area for the redesign of the Gardner Museum, as architect, advance notice has been uniformly positive. The benefits of the new HAM appear to be many and inarguable. They range from introducing essential climate controls to old buildings, like the Fogg—the absence of which prompted HAM director Thomas W. Lentz to remark “we would never lend to ourselves”—to furthering HAM’s utility as a teaching institution, to the sort of opening to a broader public that is unlikely to be deemed disingenuous.

The new HAM will be difficult for the public to ignore. A piece in The Harvard Crimson reported, “The museum’s new structure, with large windows, galleries exposed to the street, and a café and shop open to non-museum visitors, seems dedicated to catching the eyes of passers by. ‘All of a sudden, it’s screaming, ‘This is an art museum,’ [HAM director Thomas] Lentz says of the new design.” Daron J. Manoogian, director of communications, adds that the reopening of HAM will be announced by “a publicity campaign unmatched by any previous efforts,” one that will include, “print ads, social media, transportation advertising, and even radio.”

Speaking as a relocated New Yorker and Cambridge resident, I can’t but look forward. A world-class museum down the road, one with splendid collections of medieval, Renaissance and modern art, augmented, recently, by a major gift of outsider art? Sure. What’s not to like? There is one thing, namely that during a 14-month interim, HAM has gone completely dark. The museums, all of the Harvard Art Museums, shut down in June 2013 and are not scheduled to reopen until November 2014. Not even the Sackler, which showcased a portion of Harvard’s art during an earlier phase of the reconstruction, remains open.

Was such a shutdown necessary? Was there no alternative to HAM going dark? Harvard, after all, does not lack for real estate in Cambridge and beyond. Couldn’t one of its properties have been utilized to display at least some of Harvard’s holdings in the interim? This, after all, was the approach taken by MoMA during a major reconstruction, when some of its art was shifted to a public venue in Long Island City, Queens, where it could be enjoyed in a folksier atmosphere than the one that prevails at MoMA in Manhattan.

I contacted Martin Filler for his opinion of the HAM shutdown. He responded, “I am very much opposed to art institutions going totally ‘dark’ during lengthy building projects.” He added that “problems with liability, conservation, and other practical matters encourage museums to shut down entirely during major construction projects, but it’s the public’s great loss and I will watch the Harvard scheme with interest.”

I put these concerns to Harvard’s Daron J. Manoogian, who responded much as Filler might have anticipated: “Our renovation and expansion project is immensely complex, and there have been no easy solutions to how we approached the multiple challenges facing us. Our top priority is, of course, the safety and care of our collections.” When I asked if the public had been brought into the decision-making process, he said Harvard had “worked very closely with the Cambridge Historic Commission,” had met with the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, and had participated in “forums [that] welcomed public comment.”

But when I spoke with Charles Sullivan of the Cambridge Historic Commission, he told me his group had “no input about keeping any of it open,” and that he did not know the Sackler, too, was now closed to the public. And when I asked Joan Pickett, the presiding officer of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, if her group had been consulted, she replied, “I am not sure consulted is the right word . . . the MCNA was informed about the overall museum project plans including the tightly choreographed process of getting some of the collection ready to move into the new building.”

In the end, the most peculiar thing about the HAM shutdown is how little attention has been paid and how little disturbance it has caused. Maybe the difference between the HAM going dark and the demolition of the AFAM is as much a matter of urban culture as it is of art and aesthetics. It is hard to imagine something on the order of the Harvard shutdown going unremarked had it occurred in the environs of W. 53 St.

Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.


  1. Harvey Blume on February 12, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    This just in: due, no doubt, to public outrage at the thought of the whole structure being trashed and relegated to the dumpster, MoMA has decided to preserve the bronze work facade of the AFAM. It will no longer sit proudly on W. 53 St. or anywhere else at the front of a building. But MoMA proposes to reassemble the facade somewhere, as art.

    There is the notion that the facade will be moved to the Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley. There it will be that oddest of Storm King sculptures, the front of a building minus the building, the ghost of the American Folk Art Museum.

    Since public pressure can do some good, should I perhaps march around in front of, say, the Sackler, with a sign saying: OPEN UP?

    Care to join me?

  2. Evelyn Rosenthal on February 12, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    I think the reason the “shutdown” has gone “unremarked” is that it was preceded by five years when the Fogg/Busch-Reisinger building was completely closed for the renovation/reconstruction but the Sackler remained open, with lots of art and continued programming. Given that the Fogg closed down in June 2008 and the Sackler stayed open until June 2013, I think Harvard gave a lot of consideration to the needs of the students (their primary constituents, their reason for being) and the public that has, rightly, come to consider the Harvard collections part of their neighborhood artscape. This really seems quite different from the MoMA vs. AFAM issue. It doesn’t make sense to expect Harvard to throw some art into a random Harvard building, when one of the major concerns that led to the renovation was the lack of adequate climate control. I don’t think you realize how much time, work, and preparation it takes to move, install, and care properly for art objects. I didn’t realize it either until I saw how much effort, organization, coordination, etc. was involved in everything about this major museum project; I worked at the Fogg for nearly 20 years, and for half of them, talk of and then preparation for this new phase in its life was in the air. I’m quite looking forward to the big splash that the opening will make in November, and don’t begrudge the extra time they need to get everything just right!

  3. peter walsh on February 13, 2014 at 8:14 am

    It used to be unheard of for an art museum to shut down completely during renovation but it has become much more common in recent years. Other local examples besides Harvard include the Addison Gallery at Andover Academy, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Davis Museum at Wellesley, all of which were closed for a considerable period of time during renovation and expansion projects. The Art Institute of Chicago recently closed its relatively new Renzo Piano extension to fix various issues and loaned out the entire modern art collection (usually considered the second most important in the nation) to the Kimball in Texas. The logistics of trying to operate a museum with all the security and environmental issues that a major construction project brings has just been too much for some institutions to want to take on. I assume the cost-benefit analysis just came up short.

    In the case of Harvard, there is a long, long back story of various failed plans to expand the museums to a second site (on the Charles or in Allston) which would have housed parts of the collection while the Harvard Square buildings were being renovated. All of these plans were ultimately vetoed by NIMBY-style community opposition. Eventually an entirely new plan was generated that did not expand off the original site. This is the one now reaching completion.

    There is a nested issue inside this one that relates to the MoMA-AFAM controversy. Art museums used to tinker with existing, historic structures rather than do a “tear down” like a commercial developer. This also is changing. Both the new MoMA and the new Harvard Art Museums are essentially entirely new structures, with just the bare minimum bits of the original buildings preserved to satisfy local historic district standards and constituents with long memories. At both MoMA and Harvard, this involved demolishing new construction, only two or three decades old. There are many, including some ex-MoMA curators, who regret the loss of the intimate galleries that were once so much a part of the MoMA experience. It is a complicated community relations problem as many visitors think of the building as the “museum” rather than the collections, which are central to most museum administrators.

  4. Harvey Blume on February 13, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Evelyn, Peter: I am not sure Harvard could have kept these museums open, though I do wonder why the Sackler, too, had to be shut. My main point was, and is, that the shutdown seemed so little noticed and provoked so little discussion.

    • peter walsh on February 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

      The Harvard shutdown was discussed in museum circles, though not with any controversy to speak of. I remember Sebastian Smee, in an early Boston Globe piece, regretted that the Harvard museums were off-line when he first arrived in Boston. Word at the time was that the Sackler space was needed to stage all the works of art being prepared for permanent installation in the new building. It is not clear whether the current Sackler galleries will continue to be used for exhibiting art once the new building opens.

      Harvard’s art museums have tended to be under appreciated both by the local public and even by Harvard itself. The importance their collections is best understood by museum curators and art historians. I think there are many reasons for this. Harvard and its collector-donors have never been particularly interested in the sort of celebrity works favored by many public art museums. Taste has always been towards the understated, the restrained, and the cerebral and typically Harvard’s museums have collected works that are fairly domestic in scale (compare to those airport-scaled pieces on view in the new MoMA). Since the thirties, Harvard has never been able to show more than a small percentage of its art and little of that in totally ideal conditions. Finally, with not much in the way of public amenities, exhibitions more oriented towards professionals that novices, no dedicated parking, and a location on a congested university campus, Harvard’s museums have traditionally made few concessions to popular taste or convenience. It will be interesting to see how the new building and the related outreach efforts change this.

  5. Harvey Blume on February 16, 2014 at 7:06 pm


    > Harvard’s art museums have tended to be under appreciated both by the local public and even by Harvard itself. The importance their collections is best understood by museum curators and art historians.

    i am neither a curator nor an art historian, yet for years have cherished works in harvard’s permanent collection along with evolving shows.

    yes, ham may have taken a low public profile in the past, but as per the material from which i quote in my piece, that is slated to change in a big way. ham will be lining up with other venues, in nyc especially but also here, that court the blockbuster.

    and harvard’s collection is huge, ranging, as i said, from medieval (and asian) to twentieth century to contemporary (outsider.) i’ll be glad to see more of it displayed, as will be the case with the new museum.

    > Sackler space was needed to stage all the works of art being prepared for permanent installation in the new building.

    perhaps so. but i maintain that harvard, no pauper so far as property goes, might have found other suitable staging areas, keeping the sackler, and the sliver of splendid work it houses, open in the interim. i haven’t heard a good reason why that was out of the question. again, this is harvard we’re talking about. let me suggest it shirked responsibility to the public by closing the sackler.

    it may be that harvard, because, as you say, it has has been underappreciated as an art venue, didn’t sufficiently question itself about this decision.

    the harvard museum is rather unique, isn’t it? it is, historically, a university museum, but has been for quite a while open to the public. i think it’s rather unique in what it has to offer.

    i look forward to the re-opening while doubting the absolute necessity of the shutdown.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts