Folk You!: A Blow-by-Blow of the Critical Brawl Over the Folk Art Museum's Benighted Building

Folk You!: A Blow-by-Blow of the Critical Brawl Over the Folk Art Museum's Benighted Building

It will cost the Museum of Modern Art $31.2 million to acquire its neighboring building on West 53rd Street, the home of the beleaguered American Folk Art Museum, which, over the course of its financial demise, defaulted on a $31.9 million loan, handed over control of its American Antiques Show, and saw its executive director step down. There's no question that the Folk Art Museum's reckless financial planning — gambling, in part, that the expensive new Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects-designed building would pay for itself by increasing admissions — was to blame for its downfall. Or could it be that the architecture itself was the curse that crippled that museum?


Several of the city's top critics have been debating this very question, with one side arguing that the contentious structure — with its looming, boxy metal-paneled gray façade — was a catastrophe from the start, while the other side defends the tower as a misunderstood architectural marvel. MoMA, meanwhile, has not revealed whether it wishes to keep the building or tear it down.


Here, to help sort out this mess, is ARTINFO's a roundup of the critical takes battling it out over the museum. (We, like them, largely avoid talking about the folk art collection itself except to praise it, here, as a civic treasure.) 


JERRY SALTZ (New York Magazine's art critic)

This month, Saltz posited that the "culprit," when it came to the Folk Art institution's fall from grace, was "the museum's physical home." His verdict that the "ugly and confining" structure was "all but useless for showing art" incited much of the recent debate over the building. Saltz, in his philippic, deemed Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's creation a "a bronzed Kleenex box or a miniature suburban professional building" with exhibition spaces that resemble a "gloomy cloakroom." He accuses Williams and Tsien of an "utter lack of imagination," in their creation of this "hubristic mess of starchitectural vanity," whose very form breathes "disdain for art." Of course, the New York magazine critic is only reaffirming what he forewarned in 2010, that "AFAM should just sell its building to MoMA," so that MoMA could tear down the "horrendous building" that "smothers the art and vision contained within." Back to his more recent tirade, he throws a whopper of a right hook by revealing that "before he died, the Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp, who'd said nice things about the building when it opened, confided to me that my loathing was 'probably right.'" With even the dead on his side, who would dare question Saltz's pronouncement?

JUSTIN DAVIDSON (New York Magazine's architecture critic)

Apparently when Davidson emailed New York magazine compatriot to warn him that he was going to rebut Saltz's Folk Art Museum trash-talking, Saltz replied, "Bring on the pain!" Which Davidson attempts to do, in this defense of the museum, which he has always found "an alluring exception to the tough sleekness of midtown (and of the Museum of Modern Art down the block)." He touts the metallic panels of the façade, caressingly praising their "textured, tactile, handmade feel" for being "just like much of the art inside." To Saltz's complaints about the interior's lack of horizontal space and the profusion of staircases, Davidson parries that in cramped midtown it's commendable that "Williams and Tsien created not just one up-and-down, take-it-or-leave-it pathway, but a set of vertical itineraries that rise toward the sun filtering through the skylight at the top." It was mismanagement and bad luck that led to the institution's downfall, he writes, and, ultimately, "blaming Williams and Tsien, or their lovely little building, for a nationwide epidemic of museum obesity amounts to clubbing an innocent bystander."

PAUL GOLDBERGER (The New Yorker's architecture critic)

In a short piece titled "The American Folk Art Museum: Don't Blame the Architects," Goldberger explains that Tsien and Williams faced a "nearly impossible task," since it is "hard to know which was tighter: the site, a townhouse-size plot squeezed between the Museum of Modern Art and midtown skyscrapers, or the museum's budget." Considering this, he says, the white bronze façade, folded "like monumental oragami," provides "a brilliant way to give the little building... a sense of weight, of gravitas, so it could hold its own among its bigger neighbors." Using this kind of little-engine-that-could angle, Goldberger praises the "small masterpiece" before suggesting that MoMA convert their new acquisition into a house for their director. "Let Glenn Lowry live there," he says. (Of course, MoMA has already provided its director with a cushy place to live.)

PETER SCHJELDAHL (The New Yorker's art critic)

Back in 2002, Schjeldahl also published a heartfelt ode to the museum, which he calls a "pleasure machine," whose structure is perfectly in keeping with its collection and mission. After acknowledging that the "skinny" building seems a little off-kilter, with disproportionate space allotted to stairways, atrium, and elevator, he lauds the "architectural strategy," which he calls "jazzlike": "Displays occur on offbeats of the space's perambulatory rhythms — each object feels like an unexpected discovery. The effect suggests a hip retail store, like Comme des Garçons or Prada, but with a beautiful irony: AFAM's goods are the opposite of glamorous."


After Davidson and Goldberger's responses, Saltz took the brawl to his home turf on Facebook, where he reigns as supreme king of art-world social media. In a note titled "Critic Cat Fight! Jerry Saltz' anti anti-Jerry Saltz answer to architecture-critics who hissed about stance on AFAM," Saltz describes how his magazine article led him to be "almost tweeted to death on Twitter," and then resumes the battle. He picks apart his two antagonists' arguments before proposing an "Ozymandias"-style plaque for the building that reads, "In the early years of the 21st century America amassed more wealth than any country in the history of the world. Numerous new museums were built. Many of them were terrible for art. This 2001 building lasted less than ten years as a museum. Let it be a reminder of what happens when museum architecture fails to respect art."

ROBERTA SMITH (New York Times art critic)

In her review of the Folk Art Museum's "Quilts" show, Smith offers her two cents on the architecture, declaring the three reasons for the museum's failure: "lackluster, visionless leadership; the weak economy; and inappropriate architecture," adding that, "the building, in particular, casts a pall." She declares it "notable" only for its "blank, vaguely lunar, metal-clad facade that is armored and fortresslike, positively foreboding." And, she agrees with Saltz (her husband) that "the most egregious touch is a broad stairway connecting the third and fourth floors that takes huge bites out of the narrow, already limited galleries." It's kind of nice to imagine the two of them driving by and egging the place.

TOD WILLIAMS (Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects)

In an article published May 12, the architect aired his fear to the Architectural Record that MoMA will unceremoniously tear down the work, becoming only the second Williams/Tsien project to be bulldozed since the duo launched their practice in 1974. "When you make a building, you put your heart and soul into it and send it out into the world," he said, adamantly arguing that the space was conceived exclusively to house art and would make for a terrible office building or home (for Glenn Lowry).


Ever-ready to stand by his convictions, Saltz took to the comments section on his Facebook note to get in a few final words on the subject of the Folk Art Museum building. "I know that some of what I have written does come off as competitive or defensive or over-wrought. I am sorry about that," he writes. "I so love this art — and never missed a show here — but feel such pain over this that I can't seem to stop myself, or don't want to stop. But I grant that my ego has probably tripped me up." Admitting to the fact that his "hissy-fit" of a Facebook post might have been "dickish," he drives home his point that "it is so condescending to always justify the tweeness & fussiness & small dark spaces of AFAM by saying 'it fits the art.' This is completely untrue — or you don't know what GREAT visionary art is."