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Faith Ringgold. “American People Series #20: Die” (1967)
Faith Ringgold. “American People Series #20: Die” (1967). Oil on canvas, two panels, 72 × 144″ (182.9 × 365.8 cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of The Modern Women’s Fund, Ronnie F. Heyman, Eva and Glenn Dubin, Lonti Ebers, Michael S. Ovitz, Daniel and Brett Sundheim, and Gary and Karen Winnick

The new MoMA shows what the future of art’s history could be

As the museum attempts to open out art history with impressive renovations and a rehang of its permanent collection, one writer asks if it’s achieved what was promised

No one’s been to the Museum of Modern Art in a while. In June, the MoMA closed its doors temporarily to finish a $400 million dollar renovation, adding over 40,000 square feet for galleries, including two at the street-level inside the new 53W53 tower, which are also free to the public. They’ve occupied the former American Folk Art Museum space, too. I mean this in the best of ways: You will get lost. 

The museum doubled its size in 2004 with Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. This recent iteration of expansion was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in collaboration with Gensler, and sought to flay stuffy pathways implemented by Taniguchi. The new entryway is sprawling with open air. A bird flew overhead, or so I thought. Wrong. Just David Tudor’s “Rainforest V (variation 1)” (1973-2015) making itself known. The expansion unravels MoMA from its centre, spreading east and west, ready for its annual three million visitors and another estimated 500,000

A major cause for “new MoMA” was returning to the roots. With an extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, the MoMA archive has acted as a shield over art history, casting a tarnished shadow. That defacto art history has long been kept away, partially due to the museum’s smaller space, but curatorial stagnation as well. Faced with the changing global-political atmosphere, museum boards and curatorial staffs across the globe are under the microscope as artists from every background working in every medium are demanding their share in the future of art history. Museums have had to rectify their collections, and quickly. The MoMA has taken every liberty with the permanent collection’s rehang, showing us just how comprehensive their archive is. Chinese artists, black artists, Indian artists, women; Painting, sculpture, film – all are fair game. It should have always been.

As the world has learned to respond to a cacophony of imagery, and how to critically respond to quick scenes, the curators created a similar effect with the rehang. New names are on every plaque, each catalogue offers information unforeseen. Cross-department teams of curators at varying levels of seniority implemented and installed these larger permanent collection galleries, so information is in overdrive. With countless new names on the wall, I’m optimistic about what’s ahead. In the months of planning the rehang, representation no doubt hung over their heads.  Sure, such a curatorial response to the changing times has taken too long from the storied institution, but it’s good to see these curators help lead the way rather than wait for particular trends or styles to inform what should be on exhibit, or who the viewer should know. Being progressive with mediums take time, and while the museum recognises that modern and contemporary art’s original form is fresh ideas that generate new traditions, new artistic languages don’t form overnight. 

Something art can do is initiate physical responses, though the need to use our bodies we are taught to reject. Tears, OK. Shouting, not OK. In the serious setting of galleries and museums, guards and monitors remind us not to run, not to shout. What to do then with all of this creative dopamine? Experiencing the new MoMA in the company of no one but a mid-morning October sun tested my limits. I could have ran. I could have jumped. I wanted to touch and feel; Yell names, pronounce words wrong. So badly I wanted to participate in all of the fun these pieces seemed to be having now that they’re on display.

“The MoMA has taken every liberty with the permanent collection’s rehang, showing us just how comprehensive their archive is. Chinese artists, black artists, Indian artists, women; Painting, sculpture, film – all are fair game. It should have always been” – Chris Stewart

At around 9:30AM, already dizzy from just peeking at exhibits, I was directed by a museum associate to “the room with the Rothkos and Newmans”, a fourth-floor gallery where Glenn D. Lowry, the David Rockefeller Director of the Museum of Modern Art, looked to “Painting 4” by Indian artist Vasuedeo S. Gaitonde. Painted in 1962, purchased in 1963, this acquisition crystalised the museum’s mission in effect. Modernism, chance, globalism. It was a nice story, but more eye-opening were new hangs like Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence’s sociopolitical Migration Series exhibited in full. The MoMA has also been hiding too many great photographs. America’s first prominent female photojournalist, Frances Benjamin Johnston receives her due with quiet documentation of black students at the Whittier School. The American street photographer, Helen Levitt, proves her eye for pedestrian beauty is unparalleled, not just in Harlem, but everywhere else. Then there’s just really great film in what seemed like every other room. Frank O’Hara running his mouth. Joan Jonas’ Mirage. You could easily spend open to close in front of moving pictures alone. 

Betye Saar’s The Legends of Black Girl Window and member: Pope.L, 1978–2001 are two incredible shows I need another 800 words to review, but I wondered if the MoMA understands that such a curatorial choice could never safeguard them from art’s current administrative facelift. Inclusivity may be a buzzword, but it needs to be ingrained in institutional purviews. In the name of modernism, old rules need not apply now. Yet only time will tell if dedication to their mission will serve the public well. These are both excellent starts. 

With positive reinforcement and cause for corrective celebration literally hanging on the walls, the issue of institutional integrity remains obtuse. Just 11 days prior to re-opening, academics and curators asked MoMA trustee Larry Fink to immediately divest museum funds from the GEO Group and Core Civic. Both corporations manage private prisons. Earlier this summer, eight exhibiting artists asked that their pieces be removed the Whitney Biennial. Safariland, a company selling law enforcement and military supply being used on Mexican migrants at the US border is owned by Warren B. Kanders, former Vice Chairman of the museum. Kanders stepped down amidst the backlash. It should go without saying no institution is safe as artists become more capable of unearthing the dirty money circulating and profiteering on minority expression. 

MoMA is guilty of aiding modern art’s straight, white, western history. Yes, their response time to such knowledge has been troublesome, but they’ve offered a look into what could be possible in the years ahead. Our artistic morales shouldn’t fail us, especially not now. Children will again arrive at the museum in troves of matching t-shirts. They’ll still see the great Picassos. They’ll love Matisse, and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, too. Now they can also find iterations of their friends. They can learn about ancestries. Most importantly, they can see themselves. This, above all else, signals the museum’s triumph.