Thursday, April 19, 2012

Finding a Home in Bowery

Martin Strickland

The move to the Bowery was a necessary accomplishment for The New Museum in 2005. Founded in 1977 by Marcia Tucker, the New Museum represented a significant institutional shift in curatorial consideration of global contemporary art. Even today, it is the only museum in New York City exclusively devoted to presenting contemporary art from around the world. Still, by the late 90’s this emphatic devotion was not enough for the museum maintain the kind of reputation that guaranteed it would stand out from the crowd. The most pressing issue was nothing new in the world of Manhattan real estate: location. The New Museum’s lack of a permanent home (it had been in a couple of different downtown locations over the years) had been a constant thorn in the side on the institution for long enough.

By securing a permanent site in downtown Manhattan – surrounded by SoHo, The Bowery and Little Italy, the museum ushered into the neighborhood a public shift of attention and opinion. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, partners in the architectural firm SANAA, were chosen as the architects and they broke ground in 2005.

The New Museum was able to accomplish a creation of an entirely new space (it is the first ever museum to be built from the ground up in downtown Manhattan), which would immediately serve three distinctly established neighborhoods, as well as the rest of the city and the international tourism population.

Karen Wong, the Executive Director of External Affairs, understood the importance of rebranding the museum entirely. She began my forming a Marketing Committee (board members, Wong, Museum Director Lisa Phillips), which led to the commissioning of a branding firm, Droga 5, to do a full intuitional re-branding overhaul. Wong commented:

“[The firm] advised that the new brand be based on the four words – new art, new ideas – that comprised the Museum’s founding core principle 30 years ago, and remain its greatest adventure and challenge”

So, upon opening, did this new marketing drive and complete rebranding did the museum sink or swim? A silly water reference aside, The New Museum has performed remarkably well. It appears to have situated itself within a social and economic context that cannot only appreciate the architecture and the added cultural capitol it brings to Downtown, but also a community that supports it. Sure, it might be a stack of big white boxes, but the people don’t seem to mind and the cubes certainly do not mock or degenerate the neighborhood in harmful manner. The structure does not loom over its surrounding street; in fact, on a sunny day, the grey-ish, uneven forms addmuch needed lightness to the large mass of asphalt that is Bowery Street, as well as the dark brick buildings that surround it.

The marketing plan and the new design worked from as aesthetic point of view. But, how does the new New Museum respond to its work as a space for connection its art to its audience? I only have seen pictures of the last triennial, Younger than Jesus, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But we were lucky enough to catch the current triennial, The Ungovernables. I think I was the most excited about this museum because it was the one I had wanted to visit for years. After a brief talk with the Director of Public Programming, we all explored the exhibition space. From the expansive lobby/bookstore/cafĂ©/ramp to the bathrooms and theaters on the first floor, to the huge, windowless space on the third and fourth floors, you never forget that you are in a series of stacked cubes. Even with minimal natural light (a wall of window on the fifth floor, an open staircase with a window between the thirst and fourth floors) the work on display is able to anchor itself in the space.

The floors are all concrete; the walls flat white, the ceiling is industrial white metal and each gallery/floor is lit with harsh halogen light bulbs. The objects on display for the Triennial could be viewed from a variety of angles and they seemed to comfortably occupy the space. Adrian Villar Rojas’ piece, Someone Loved Me (2012), was perhaps the most threatening piece, but it did not overwhelm the space and one could still walk all the way around the massive object without being interrupted by the two other large-scale instillations in the room.

The high ceilings and industrial feeling of the space lends itself particularly well to additional works with opposite characteristics. The vibrant colors of the art settled into the minimal interior of the galleries. The museum is not trying to compete with the works; the floor plan and interior design provide an audience with easily navigable spaces, which unselfishly elevate the art they are displaying.

One work I particularly enjoyed was Slavs and Tatars’ Prayway (2012) on the third floor. The rich colors of the fabric and the immediate sense of warmth (from the carpet and the strips of light underneath) felt by encountering the piece became a striking contradiction to the space it was placed in. The exhibition space allowed the work to reinforce its purpose as a direct collision of tradition, modernism and the profane. We were welcome to sit on it, to recline and converse on it, to fully interact with it. The mixture of the familiar home furnishing juxtaposed to the bare museum interior, while seated, allowed one to fully connect the art with space it is placed in; the art and the gallery space become better understood through one another.

The New Museum did what it had to do to survive. The collection of art works the museum strives to exhibit could not have been matched entirely by another larger institution. The mission and original goal for the museum would have been lost. The persons in charge democratically ensured a second coming of sorts for the museum; the entire team was informed and involved in the process, through Wong and other committee members. In the end (which is really only the immediate future right now in 2012, to be fair) the dedication seems to have paid off. It will be interesting to witness how the New Museum continues to grow and operate now that the intuition has a permanent home for the first time in its more than 30 years on the New York Art scene. The museum appears to be resting confidently in its decision to rebrand, reinvest, and relocate to provide a space to exhibit exceptional contemporary art from all around the world.

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