Met museum ready for makeover

Updated: 2014-05-23 07:03

By Robin Pogrebin (China Daily)

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The New York landmark has planned a brand-new wing to house contemporary art, Robin Pogrebin reports.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is planning to rebuild its wing for modern and contemporary art - possibly from scratch - to create new showcase galleries for its expanded collection from those periods, Met officials have confirmed. Part of the first comprehensive re-examination of the museum's layout in 40 years, the planned new wing sends a powerful signal that the Met is acknowledging its shortcomings in the area of modern and contemporary art and stepping up its commitment to that area in order to become truly encyclopedic.

"It seemed a logical moment to really step back and think about the needs of the museum in the next 30 years," says Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Met. "It's the modern wing's turn to get it right."

This comes at a time when the museum world has become more competitive and others are upping their game, namely the Museum of Modern Art, which recently announced a major renovation, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which will soon move to a snazzy, hip new home downtown.

Still, the move has its risks, given that modern and contemporary art has never been the Met's main skill set and some will argue that the museum should play to its strengths. But the museum has a tail wind with the massive gift it received last year of 79 cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures from the philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder. And the Met seems determined to compete in a field whose stature and popularity has been boosted by soaring auction prices.

Though the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, completed in 1987 in the southwest corner of the institution, is one of the largest recent additions, curators and visitors have long viewed its layout as problematic, partly because it does not allow for a chronological presentation.

"You leave the 19th-century galleries, which finish with early Picasso and Matisse, then cross the hall and are abruptly confronted with contemporary art made 100 years later," says Gary Tinterow, former chairman of the Met's department of 19th-century modern and contemporary art, and who now directs the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Campbell says he has in the back of his mind a completion goal of 2020, when the Met will turn 150, and he will aim to have the redesign include an expansion of the roof garden and, possibly, even a new entrance to the museum from Central Park. The current building "in a sense turns the museum's back on the park", he says.

No budget figures have been released for the undertaking, but projects of this scale typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a significant sum, though in keeping with what the Met board has raised for prior additions.

One spur for the decision is the Met's eight-year agreement to lease the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue from the Whitney, giving the Met space for its contemporary collection during construction. The Whitney is moving next spring.

Another factor is the Met's interest in creating an appropriately important home for the Lauder gift, valued at more than $1 billion.

"Leonard's collection is such a huge missing link between our very strong collections of Impressionism and Post-impressionism and our moderately strong holdings of early 20th century that if we reconfigure the galleries, we have the potential to tell the chronological story," Campbell says.

Still, as evident in the case of the New York Public Library's scuttled renovation for its flagship Fifth Avenue branch, enthusiastic planning is not enough to underwrite a major structural change on this scale. Any redesign will require considerable fundraising and the approval of city agencies like the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the parks department.

The Met's most recent master plan, drafted in 1970, added 1 million square feet (93,000 square meters) to the museum on Fifth Avenue - like the American Wing and Sackler Wing (which houses the Temple of Dendur) - over a 30-year period.

Those changes include the recent renovations of the Islamic galleries and the Costume Institute, which just reopened. An overhaul of the Fifth Avenue plaza is also underway.

Two years ago, the Met quietly commissioned a sweeping feasibility study of its physical plant, which was completed last fall by Beyer Blinder Belle. A committee of trustees and staff is plotting next steps.

Philippe de Montebello, the Met's former director, says he was not privy to the museum's internal discussions but believed the Met had to start over, given Lauder's gift "and the need to rationalize the collections of late 19th into 20th and 21st centuries."

"That wing has to be completely redesigned," he says. "I can't imagine this would be merely a fix-it solution. I suspect that it would need to be torn down and rebuilt."

The reconstruction of the Wallace Wing will offer the Met naming opportunities for a new donor.

"That is something we'd have to think about," Campbell says. "We might honor the Wallace legacy by naming another part of the museum."

The Met officials say they also hoped an improved space would lure more donated works of art.

"We've got areas of strength and we've got big areas of weakness, and, of course, we can't afford to buy at current prices," Campbell says. "One of my goals is to make attractive galleries where collectors and donors feel they are giving to spaces where their art will be meaningful."

 Met museum ready for makeover

The Metropolitan Museum of Art draws visitors from around the world, with its wealth of artworks on display. Stan Honda / Agence France-presse

 Met museum ready for makeover

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a treasure trove of relics (above and far right), dating to various periods of time, and its new renovation project is set to expand its appeal in today's competitive museum world. Photos provided to China Daily

 Met museum ready for makeover

A redesigned wing at the Met will shed more light on the modern art and lure more donated works.

Met museum ready for makeover