Tod Williams Worries That Folk Art Museum Will Be Razed Following Sale to MoMA

May 12, 2011

By C. J. Hughes

Folk Art Museum
Photo © Michael Moran
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New York City’s American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects and completed in 2001, has been sold to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) next door.

Because MoMA is looking to expand, speculation is rife that the 30,000-square-foot folk museum on West 53rd St. is targeted for demolition.

The building sits between MoMA and an empty lot where Hines, a global developer, plans to build a high-rise by Jean Nouvel that will offer condos as well as galleries for MoMA. Though that tower has not yet broken ground, Williams and others fear that the museum could be torn down to sweeten the development opportunity.

In spite of rumors of a teardown, MoMA claims that the eight-level building, whose facade is clad with distinctive metal panels, will not be razed but used as gallery space.

Since Williams and Tsien started their practice in New York City in 1974, Williams says only one of their projects was bulldozed, a small shop on the Upper East Side. To witness the demolition of anything you created is difficult, he said: “When you make a building, you put your heart and soul into it and send it out into the world.”

Williams also hopes the building is not converted to offices because it was specifically designed to house art. “It wouldn’t make any sense to gut the structure,” he said.

The museum’s sale was finalized on Tuesday, although a MoMA spokeswoman couldn’t disclose the terms of the deal. But in a statement, MoMA said it was approached about the sale by the folk museum in order to help erase $32 million in debt.

“This mutually beneficial arrangement between the two museums will provide funding for the American Folk Art Museum at a critical time, and additional space for the Museum of Modern Art,” the statement read.

It’s unknown when the folk museum will vacate its current home. Its exhibition space will now be limited to an existing 5,000-square-foot gallery on Columbus Avenue, across from Lincoln Center. The museum has about 5,000 pieces in its collection.

“We don’t know what will happen yet, but the point is, we have to move,” said Susan Flamm, a spokesperson for the folk museum. The private institution opened in 1961 and has been based on West 53rd for most of its existence, though in different buildings prior to 2001. Flamm added that the decision to sell the Williams/Tsien building, critically praised for its manipulation of space and light within a tall, slender volume, was made by the museum’s board of trustees.

A spokesperson for Hines did not return a call for comment by press time.

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