Happy New Year 2009 to all my readers! May this year bring good health, happiness and a plethora of interesting places and things to visit and enjoy!
What better way to begin a new year than by visiting a new cultural institution! Well, not exactly brand new, but in a new location and with a new name and mission. Confused? Don't worry - here's the story...
In 1956 the "Museum of Contemporary Crafts" opened in a brownstone on West 53rd Street. It was dedicated to recognizing the work of American craftspeople and making the general public more aware of this art form. Thirty years later, the name was updated to the "American Craft Museum" and the institution relocated to a new building also on West 53rd Street, across from the Museum of Modern Art. After presenting over 560 exhibitions and accumulating a permanent collection of more than 2,000 objects, the Museum's scope and stature had evolved to require a bigger, more flexible space and a modernization of it's objectives.
In 2002 the Museum's director, Holly Hotchner, began a much publicized campaign to acquire and renovate the infamous "Lollipop Building", built in 1964 as a museum by Huntington Hartford and later home to The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau (see photo left). Located on Columbus Circle and long the object of snide remarks by critics and visitors, the building had been abandoned for several years and was becoming an eyesore. Nevertheless a strong objection was raised by defenders of the original marble facade who appealed to the Landmarks Commission to preserve this piece of New York City's architectural history. Ms Hotchner and the Museum prevailed and undertook an extensive re-design of the building both its interior and the much maligned exterior.
The result, a sheath of glazed terracotta tile and glass on the Southwest corner of Columbus Circle, was unveiled as the "Museum of Arts and Design" on September 27, 2008. The building itself has been an aesthetic success although I must admit I do miss the quirky portholes and arcade of the original construction. It now boasts greatly expanded exhibition areas on 4 floors, open studio spaces, a café, an auditorium, event rooms and a large shop off the lobby, all contained in a sleek, modern facility.
The new building is by all accounts wonderful, but what about the collections? Last Saturday I had the opportunity to drop by MAD and see what lay behind the facade. I took the elevator up to the 6th floor where visitors could watch a jeweler working on her projects in one of the light-filled open artists' studios.
Then down a flight of stairs to see "Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary" an exhibition that is spread over the 4th and 5th floors and features works by 50 artists who have created objects and installations using ordinary manufactured items in a totally different way from their intended purposes. It's a sort of creative recycling of household objects reclassifying them as "art". For example, Johnny Swing's sofa made out of coins welded together and entitled "Quarter Lounge". Or Stuart Haygarth's "Spectacle" chandelier comprised of eyeglasses. Or "Sound Wave", Jean Shin's 6 foot high sculpture formed of melted vinyl L.P.s. The quality was spotty, to say the least, but some works did go beyond just "clever" to be truly beautiful and thought provoking, like "Portrait of a Textile Worker", Terese Agnews's 2005 tapestry fashioned entirely of clothing labels.
The 3rd floor is devoted to the Museum's permanent collection and here is where the institution's roots as the American Craft Museum are clearly visible. The rotating displays contain some superb examples of craftsmanship in all sorts of mediums including glass, porcelain, wood, basketry and metal. There are also some excellent samples of furniture and household goods by American designers.
Down to 2 and "Elegant Armor: The Art of Jewelry" an inaugural exhibition featuring specimens from MAD's collection of art jewelry. Divided into four themes including "Sculptural Forms", "Narrative Jewelry", "Painted and Textured Surfaces" and the "Radical Edge", the works presented were generally more flamboyant and decorative than actual jewelry to be worn.
Finally we've reached the ground floor and a walk-through of the surprisingly good gift shop. I concluded my visit glad to have been, but questioning the now very indistinct borders MAD has created between art and craft and design. It will be interesting to see if and how these lines are further blurred in future exhibitions. The Museum of Arts and Design is located at 2 Columbus Circle and is open from Wednesday to Sunday.