A revamped South Street Seaport Museum shook off the dust last night to reopen after a three-month renovation overseen by the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibits were both a departure from and an embrace of the old collection. The design team, particularly Wendy Evans Joseph and Chris Cooper of Cooper Joseph Studio, turned what could have been a cramped exhibition arrangement into a free-flowing multi-leveled space.
Some of the contemporary elements might strike a design-conscious audience as familiar. A very large segment of the exhibition space is devoted to contemporary furnishings designed and “Made in New York,” feeling a bit like an ICFF satellite. A fashion component adds a dash of Fifth Avenue flair. MCNY’s curator of architecture and design Donald Albrecht noted that the port was always about moving goods and “making.” Much of the work assembled in the show is manufactured in Brooklyn warehouses that once serviced the maritime trade but have since been repurposed for an ever-expanding design industry.
A few standouts were Daniel Michalik’s recycled cork chaise lounge from 2006 and designer David Nosanchuk‘s multi-faceted Plexiglas lamp, the NR1. Nosanchuk’s piece represents a rarity these days in that it was both designed and manufactured in Manhattan. With all the ship-making tools painstakingly arranged on angled white plane in the gallery next door, the “making” tradition becomes abundantly clear. Less clear is whether the inclusion of contemporary fashion makes the same seamless leap. Still, fashion designer Jordon Betten‘s installation of a lost waif in a part of the museum building that originally housed the Sweet’s Hotel (1870-1920) provides a stirring contrast to the decayed rafters.
Some older exhibits from MCNY made the trip downtown, including Eric Sanderson’s Manahatta, which includes a three dimensional map of Mahattan with an overhead projector that digitally morphs the terrain from natural wetlands and forests of 1650 to today’s dense street grid. There’s also a tight ensemble of Edward Burtynsky photographs. Burtynsky’s images of Bangladeshi shipbreakers dismantling once powerful ships for scrap metal provide an unexpected smack of mortality.
Another gallery calls attention to “The New Port” with a time-lapse video by digital artist Ben Rubin called Terminal 8 that focuses on of arrivals and departures of American Airlines jets at JFK. But as the gallery prominently features American Airlines corporate brand it’s difficult to see the artistic forest through the commercial trees, a fact made all the more jarring by the Occupy Wall Street photo exhibition just two galleries away.
The Occupy segment of the exhibit is perhaps the biggest stroke of marketing smarts on the part of MCNY that might just distract tourists from the ghoulish “Bodies” exhibit across the street and bring them back into a New York state of mind. The Occupy gallery was packed on opening night. It added a cool factor that can’t be quantified. The exhibit itself recalls the Here is New York show that opened in Soho about a month after the 9/11 attacks and later toured around the world. The photos celebrate, engage, and provoke, much like the demonstrations. Not a bad metaphor for the city at large or the new management.