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At Long Last, Museum for African Art Finds a Place to Call Its Own

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Image courtesy Neoscape for Robert A.M. Stern Architects


Since 1984, New York’s Museum for African Art hasn’t had a permanent home, and since 1959, the city’s “Museum Mile” hasn’t boosted its ranks with new institutions. Now both streaks are broken.

Earlier this month the museum unveiled plans for a three-story, 93,000-square-foot structure designed by Robert A.M. Stern. To be located at 1280 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the $80 million project will join nine other museums along Central Park’s eastern edge, but will be the first since the Guggenheim to reside in a newly built home. Groundbreaking is set for June, and the museum, currently based in Long Island City, is expected to open by late 2009.

“We’re delighted, giddy, and excited,” says Elsie McCabe, president of the museum. “It’s been a long time coming.”

It almost came sooner. In 2000, the museum partnered with Edison Schools, a for-profit education company, to develop a building on the same site for the two to share. But business struggles forced Edison to scuttle those plans just two years later.

This time around, the museum is teaming with Sidney Fetner Associates and Brickman Associates, which will co-develop 116 housing units on top of the museum, a surer bet in New York’s still-hot residential market—and a use the city preferred over most commercial tenants. Plus, in the prior attempt, the building, designed by Bernard Schumi, had only one lot with which to work. Now it has roughly half a block thanks to a discounted sale of four adjacent publicly owned lots, which was brokered by New York City’s economic development corporation.

For Stern, the boost in size increased the design possibilities for the building, whose large plaza will sweep visitors into a 44-foot-tall lobby framed with etimoe, a caramel-colored Ghanaian wood. The architect says that the museum and its atrium-like entrance will serve as a “hinge” between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, creating long-absent common ground where neighbors can freely mix.

“It’s a whole new ball game, museums that function as cultural centers for the community,” Stern says. “We hope it engages the public in a way that other museums are struggling to do.”

C. J. Hughes