Who gets to build MoMA’s expansion?

As disgruntled museum staff strike, America’s most famous museum of modern art is trawling world-wide for a new architect


Among architects, designing the master plan for the Museum of Modern Art is the commission of the decade. Some hype it as the project of the millennium, since ground may not be broken until 2000.

For months, rumours were rife as architects manoeuvred to ensure that they would be chosen for the invited competition to design the museum’s master plan, which involves renovation, new construction and bringing coherence to the new ensemble.

The list of ten invited architects offers some surprises. In a profession where an architect’s career “begins at fifty”, as Mies Van der Rohe once said, many of the aspirants are relatively young. Few have designed a major museum and less than half are Americans.

Prominent architects were among the uninvited. Richard Meier (J. Paul Getty Museum, Barcelona Museum of Modern Art) and Charles Gwathmey (Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue addition) were considered contenders, but neither made it to the final list, perhaps because they are identified with existing museum structures. Frank Gehry, whose Bilbao Guggenheim opens in September, was asked to send work from his portfolio, and then not invited to submit a design. Nor is Peter Eisenman (Cincinnati Museum of Art) a candidate, even though MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, cited Eisenman last October when describing MoMA’s challenge as a “theorising of space, not architecture per se”.

The list of invited architects includes Wiel Arets and Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands; Toyo Ito and Yoshio Taniguchi of Japan; Dominique Perrault of France; Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of France. There are four New York firms : Steven Holl, Barnard Tschumi, Rafael Vinoly and Tod Williams/Billie Tsien.

As the museum mulls over a master plan, its nonagenarian architectural muse, Philip Johnson, is in failing health. Mr Johnson was expected to have played a role in the selection of the design for the expansion. His illness leaves the decision to the trustees and Mr Lowry, who called the project an “opportunity to conceptualise a modern museum in the context of the future”.

Erecting a gleaming new temple to modern art promises to be frustrating. Another institution already plans a new building on the same block. The Museum of American Folk Art owns a forty-by-one-hundred-foot lot to the west that stands in MoMA’s way. So far, MoMA has failed to dissuade that museum from building on its site, which it could begin within a year.

Another complication may be that the block is already overbuilt. One strategy suggested by architects specialising in museum design is to tear down the Dorset Hotel in order to build a new structure with larger, more versatile spaces. That may prove impossible, since the Dorset is said to have already exceeded its allowable space, according to city law. If the hotel is torn down, the museum may be forced to build a smaller structure in its place.

Expanding also means evicting residential tenants living in buildings acquired by the museum. That strong-arming will not shock the members of PASTA (Professional and Administrative Staff Association), the union that represents the museum’s employees. As The Art Newspaper goes to press, the museum and PASTA have still not renewed their last contract, which expired in October. The museum’s lawyer, Robert Batterman, claims that PASTA delayed in submitting its proposals to the bargaining table. PASTA accuses the museum of deliberately prolonging the process, once both sides started negotiating. The impasse led to a loud one-day strike on 17 December. To MoMA’s chagrin, artists arriving for a special party that day lined up to sign petitions supporting the strikers.

Talks hinge on wages and job security. Mr Batterman says that MoMA’s priority is balancing its budget, which is threatened by staff demands. PASTA is asking for assurances that staff will not be cut while the museum expands. So far, they have received only verbal promises from Mr Lowry. Sceptical PASTA negotiators recall that Mr Lowry faced a budget crisis in his last job as director of the Art Gallery of Ontario by sacking half the staff. A purge of long-serving curators followed.

At MoMA, Mr Lowry’s affable personality and all-staff meetings have not won employees over. PASTA’s leader, Virginia Dodier, reflects the staff’s misgivings: “We see him as capable of doing anything in the service of his ambition”. Ms Dodier and her colleagues fear an effort to break PASTA, the only museum union in New York that has organized professional staff.

The stalled process sheds light on the nature of work in American museums. Salaries in the not-for-profit sector in the US are relatively low (disproportionately low at MoMA, PASTA says) and managers often assume that the low compensation is an act of goodwill by their employees. Low pay amounts to a subsidy, says James Abruzzo, a specialist in museum management at the A. T. Kearney Company in New York: “In fact, you find that in many art museums, the major donors are the junior staff”.

The pious rhetoric promoting programmes and exhibitions does not travel to the bargaining table. Nor do donors target their gifts to increasing museums’ operating budgets, of which salaries are a part. Benefactors—and MoMA’s are some of America’s richest—tend to favour building or acquisition projects which can then bear their names.

Funding the John J. Smith Gallery is one thing; funding the John J. Smith Janitor is quite another.