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MoMA Nabs Folk Art Museum Building
Future of acclaimed Williams Tsien building uncertain.
American Folk Art Museum.
Dan Nguyen/flickr

Officials from the Museum of Modern Art and the American Folk Art Museum announced the sale of the Folk Art building to the Modern on Wednesday. Completed in 2001, the Todd Williams Bille Tsien-designed Folk Art Museum was widely heralded at the time of its opening. The institution has struggled financially since then, however, including debts to pay for the highly-wrought, brooding building, known for its folded white bronze façade and spiraling sequence of intimate galleries. The Modern, thus far, has declined to say what its intentions are for the building.

Adjacent to the Modern, but surrounded by an empty lot that MoMA has long intended to develop, the comparatively tiny 39,000-square-foot Folk Art Museum building represents both an architectural asset for the museum, and a major development opportunity. MoMA, working with Hines, has been pushing to develop the surrounding land into a large gallery and condominium tower designed by Jean Nouvel, which would have wrapped around the Williams and Tsien building. The Department of City Planning has asked Hines and MoMA to scale down the height of the tower, so there may be a financial incentive to remove the Folk Art Building. “I hope that they don’t see our building as an impediment,” Todd Williams told AN.

American Folk Art Museum   American Folk Art Museum   American Folk Art Museum
Inside the American Folk Art Museum.
Michael Moran (Left & Center) Peter Mauss/ESTO (Right) [+ Click to enlarge.]

MoMA issued the following statement about the acquisition: “The American Folk Art Museum recently approached The Museum of Modern Art regarding its decision to sell its building at 45 West 53rd Street, as MoMA has the right of first refusal on the property. After carefully considering this opportunity, MoMA has agreed to purchase the building and property. This mutually beneficial arrangement between the two museums will provide funding for the American Folk Art Museum at a critical time, and additional space for The Museum of Modern Art.” Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, declined to comment on the architectural merits of the Folk Art building or the Modern’s intentions for its future.

Arguably the best known of Williams and Tsien’s buildings, the richly detailed American Folk Art Museum interpreted the spirit of craft and materiality common in folk art in a contemporary architectural idiom. “It’s not a building where you can rip out the interior and keep the shell,” Williams said. “The structure and the interior are one and the same.”

The American Folk Art Museum will continue to operate out of their much smaller branch at 2 Lincoln Square across from Lincoln Center. No date has been set for it to vacate the 53rd Street property.

For Williams and Tsien, it is a remarkably swift turn of events for their acclaimed building to face an uncertain future only ten years after it opened. “I’ve got a knot in my stomach,” Williams said. “But I believe in good people, good intentions, and positive outcomes.”

Alan G. Brake