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PR and High Culture: MoMA Addresses Backlash Over Folk Art Museum Demolition

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Public museums need public relations, too. In a story that exposes a side of the discipline we rarely see, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has attempted to garner public support for a move that threatens to split the worlds of art and architecture and lead many wealthy donors to close their wallets.

Here’s a quick summary (trust us, it gets interesting):

In 2001 the MoMA commissioned a new building to house the associated American Folk Art Museum. The facade, visible in the image above, was groundbreaking in several ways, and it earned husband and wife firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects universal praise; the World Architecture Awards even named it “The Best Building in the World.”

In 2011, however, the Folk Art Museum defaulted on the loan it accepted to build the structure and moved to a new location at Columbus Circle; MoMA agreed to buy the building as part of its continuing expansion. The announcement, in April 2013, that the institution would have to demolish the existing building in order to complete this expansion inspired outrage throughout the international art and architecture communities.

New York City's MoMA To Demolish 12-Year-Old Critically Praised Building

The principals at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm hired to handle the demolition/expansion, were longtime friends of the architects who created the Folk Art building—and their plans led to a public falling out.

The museum reconsidered, but in January president Glenn Lowry announced that he had no choice: in order to complete the expansion, the builders would have to demolish the Folk Art building.

Over the past month, nearly every major architecture critic has weighed in to denounce the move; The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman wrote that it “lacks vision” while Michael Wolff of The Guardian called it “a case study in how to ruin an institution“. One of the few critics to defend the move was Justin Davidson of New York magazine, who wrote that he “understand[s] perfectly what they’re doing” even if he doesn’t necessarily like it.

MoMA—which has its own (very small) in-house PR team in addition to working with HL Group—scheduled an event called “A Conversation on the Museum of Modern Art’s Plan for Expansion” in January to try and minimize the backlash. The event even had its own hashtag, but based on the following discussion we have to say it didn’t really work.

Here’s Times critic Kimmelman:

And Paul Goldberger of Vanity Fair:

Ouch.

One thing is clear: MoMA is stuck between a (very beautiful) rock and a hard place—and they need additional PR help ASAP.

What would we do?

[Images via Flickr user Dan Nguyen and Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

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