Earlier this week I visited the Museum of Modern Art for the first time since they “confirmed” they are demolishing the American Folk Art Museum. I struggled with renewing my membership this past spring given the disrespect both I and many others felt that MoMA showed towards its little jewel of a neighbor which lost out in the big real estate dealings of New York City. Despite the protests of nearly every architectural critic and historian and architects around the world, this beautiful landmark is now under scaffolding as it is dismantled. There has been much written about it and its doom, by me and most recently Architectural Record. But I gave in and rejoined because some of the best architectural exhibits I’ve ever seen (including both the Labrouste and the LeCorbusier exhibits last year) have been thoughtfully and beautifully curated by the MoMA staff. I love their restaurants (although incredibly over priced) and reading in the Philip Johnson-designed garden has always been a joy. So off I went to spend another summer afternoon at one of my beloved institutions, this time to visit the new exhibit “Designing Modern Women.”
Ambiguity Meets Patriarchy
This exhibit made me question renewing my membership and left me quivering with anger. Ken Johnson at the NY Times wrote a much more measured review of the exhibit than I find myself capable of doing: Shoehorned into half the Museum of Modern Art’s design department, “Designing Modern Women 1890-1990” is a confusing exhibition but an excellent conversation starter. And If there have been important female designers of tools, automobiles and skyscrapers, that sort of work remains unrecognized here.
I had not read any reviews before I went. I had no idea what to expect, but this was not it. Before I discuss the intellectual content, let me share my discontent with the exhibit’s organization. Like Mr. Johnson, I was very confused from the minute I arrived at the exhibit. There was no “entrance,” the entry boards were located halfway into the room and I was never quite sure where the exhibit started or ended. The entire exhibit was very small. While LeCorbusier’s groundbreaking exhibit last summer occupied an entire wing of the third floor, this one barely used one room. Now I love Le Corbusier and that exhibit, which I went to three times, was worth every square foot. But come on MoMA, an entire century of modern design by women is “shoehorned” in one back space? (To quote Mr. Johnson again.)
It is my understanding that the exhibit is comprised of items already in the MoMA collections. If that is the case, then MoMA better start seriously evaluating their collections and the representation of woman designers in it. With such a lack of connected content, I really do not understand why they bothered with this exhibit. There was no expected “shop” at the end with related items for sale and no exhibit catalogue. In the book shop, on a shelf entitled “Books related to current exhibits,” the only “related” book I could find was one on midcentury kitchen counters. Really.
Overall I found everything from the chosen content, to the labels to the lack of real intellectual rigor solicitous and patriarchal. The ambiguity of the goal of the exhibit was frustrating. Perhaps it would have been less confusing if the exhibit were just called what it was – a random collection of various design items in the modern era by men with some involvement of a woman. Charlotte Perriand, who worked with Corbu, receives the most attention as does her kitchen design for L’Unite d’ Habitation in Marseilles. Eileen Gray is mentioned as is Francis Knoll but I had trouble even identifying what items they designed. The design teams of Charles and Ray Eames, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are meagerly represented, but nowhere are any of the brilliant modern architects such as Natalie de Blois even suggested. Yet an entire display called “Kitchen Transformations “ takes up 1/5 of the exhibit. To quote Mr. Johnson one last time, “If the exhibition were intended not to celebrate female designers but to lament how sexism kept them down, you wouldn’t have to change a thing.”
Where is MoMA Heading?
Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s architecture and design department curator, recently left to return to teaching at Columbia full-time. His replacement was just announced last week – Martino Stierli, a Swiss art history professor. I would love to know the real story behind Mr. Bergdoll’s leaving – was he frustrated by the museum’s response to the Folk Art debacle? Or was it just his time to leave. I fear that this meager “woman” exhibit is an example of what happens during a leadership vacuum. I hope that Mr. Stierli continues the significant research and exhibits that are now Mr. Bergdoll’s legacy. As I left the exhibit and museum in a huff, I realized that the entry bollards were removed, now providing free public access to the garden. MoMA has offered up its garden to the public as mitigation for demolishing the Folk Art Museum building, and while that is appreciated, since free access to MoMA is not easily gotten, I hardly think that makes up for the reckless disrespect that this institution (and its board) shows toward actual built design on its street. One wonders if the Folk Art Museum had been designed by Frank Gehry as opposed to the collaborative team of Tod Williams Billi Tsien Architects would the real estate-centric board of MOMA been so quick to dismiss it.
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