The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is now closed for redevelopment and expansion until 2005. When it decided to make Queens its temporary home, the curators knew it was going to be a challenge to get traditionally insular Manhattanites across the river
Peter Foley, director of marketing at MoMA, says: “We knew that we had to package Western Queens as a destination, so we set about creating links with the many cultural institutions already in Queens: the Noguchi Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park, the American Museum of the Moving Image, P.S.1, the Sculpture Center, the African Art Museum, the public library in Jamaica, and the Queens Museum of Art. We’re also working with the Department for Cultural Affairs, the Queens Council on the Arts, the Long Island City Business Development Corporation, LaGuardia Community College, elected officials, community groups, high schools, 62 branch libraries, and area restaurants.”
Queens is a borough of communities. These are defined by tight, ethnic neighbourhoods that, unlike Manhattan, are not on an easily navigated grid of streets.
Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, director of the Queens Council on the Arts explains, “Queens is the most ethnically and culturally diverse county in the US. If you ride the number seven express train through Queens, you pass through 165 different nationalities. We employ a full-time folk arts director. An essential part of his job is walking the streets of these communities, talking with residents, and exploring the confluence of cultures. From the information he gathers, the council is able to cater to these communities for educational programming, grants for artists and art groups, exhibitions, and advocacy.”
MoMA has tapped into the resources of the Queens Council to learn how to understand its new world. Katy McDonald, the museum’s director of government and community relations, noted, “Through the council, Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Long Island City Business Development Corporation among others, we found out who all the stakeholders were. We then met with all of these groups to formalise our shared agenda. We knew that MoMA would be a wonderful draw for existing members and people in Queens but that we couldn’t do it all alone.”
“This is the beginning of a long-term commitment by the museum to build and maintain community relationships and it has been a wonderful learning experience for us.”
The first collaboration was in the Artlink, a courtesy weekend shuttle from MoMA in Manhattan to P.S.1, the Socrates Sculpture Park, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and the Noguchi Museum.
This shuttle, funded by the Long Island City Council’s office and a grant from New York State’s Council on the Arts, provides public transport to institutions not easily reached by subway, thus breaking the boundaries between the separate neighbourhoods.
To prepare Queens residents for the arrival of MoMA, museum educators have been giving a series of lectures in the Queens libraries on the history of the museum and of modern art.
An exhibition of artists’ books is planned for the Jamaica branch, the largest and most active in the library system through which 5,000 visitors pass daily. The artists’ books exhibition, due to open in January 2004, will include examples from MoMA’s vast collection.
More importantly for Queens, as part of the exhibition the museum plans to acquire through a juried call for entries, 15 to 25 books by artists living in Queens as well as the same number of artists’ books in languages spoken by Queens residents.
MoMA’s education department has also worked with over 65 schools in Queens, using a programme aimed at educating teachers and students into the Visual Thinking Curriculum (VTC).
Staff from MoMA’s education department are already talking with schools and community coordinators in Queens to find out how they can meet teachers’ and students’ needs. There is, for example, one programme in which people with impaired sight learn about sculpture through touch.
The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 as an educational institution, but for the last few years economics, internal politics, a five-month strike by professional staff, and increasing pressure to cut costs have threatened to undermine the educational underpinnings of the institution.
A few community-minded individuals, working within the increasingly market-driven museum system, are nonetheless doing an exemplary job of using their focus-group findings to promote educational and community-building initiatives.
Agnes Gund, president of the museum who retires this month, said, “With Queens, my hope is not more money from admissions but a growth in [the museum’s] sensitivity, an expanded outreach, to include people who would not usually come to a museum. And I hope that we, in turn, by going into schools, institutions and neighbourhoods, will learn how to approach what we do in a broader way.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'MoMA moves from Manhattan'