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PRINT January 1998

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the new New Museum

IT IS MID NOVEMBER, and there’s no heat in the New Museum. The staccato hammering from construction crews is constant; what’s worse, Marcia Tucker, the museum’s founder and director, cannot figure out the newly installed phone system. Despite these inconveniences, Tucker is as radiant as an expectant mom. Twenty years after she founded this renegade New York institution and fourteen years after moving to SoHo from its location at the New School, the New Museum of Contemporary Art is getting a makeover, both physically and philosophically. The programming will still be devoted to socially engaged and often difficult art. But instead of mounting several overstuffed group shows during the year, senior curator Dan Cameron will emphasize one-person exhibitions, often highlighting artists from abroad. And he has an additional 4,500 square feet of space to do so.

The New Museum has acquired the second floor of its building at 583 Broadway—in exchange for giving up some of its ground-floor space to allow the developer to create a Mercer Street entrance for what will become a residential loft condominium. The expanded museum makes its official debut on March 19 with three exhibitions: “Unland: Doris Salcedo”; “The Cardoso Flea Circus,” an installation by Maria Fernanda Cardoso, who, like Salcedo, is a Colombian-born artist; and “Keeping Track of the Joneses,” a group show of nine mostly New York-based artists working with ideas about family. Meanwhile, two of the museum’s three floors are already open (as of December 4). Currently on view is a retrospective of thirty objects created by Mona Hatoum, the Palestinian artist now living in London.

Museum regulars will instantly notice the structural changes, part of architect Colin Cathcart’s plans and costing $3 million to realize. Gone is the street-level window exhibition space. Instead, pedestrians can glimpse the museum’s airy entrance, with its elegant staircase of structural steel and maplewood leading from the first floor up through the mezzanine to the second floor. The basement, which previously housed the museum’s offices, will now play host to a contemporary-art bookstore and project space. The second-floor gallery features dramatic bay windows looking onto Broadway. When the museum is fully operational, entry to the basement spaces will be free to everyone. (It’s here that the “Cardoso Flea Circus” will be installed.)

“It makes me so happy to stand on that staircase and see this kind of openness and the multiple layers,” says Tucker, who was once mocked in The New York Times as the “high priestess of trendiness.” “The experience of art and its relationship to culture is also multiple. We have always reexamined our reasons for being and have been self-critical about ourselves as a museum. One of the ideas about the open window was to say to people, ‘Come in, don’t be afraid.’ Museums can be even more intimidating than galleries, because the first thing you usually see is a guard and a cash register.” When asked whether Cameron was being given more latitude than his predecessors, Tucker is diplomatic. “The way we have selected our curatorial staff has depended on the needs of the time,” she says. “Right now, there is a tremendous need to show the work of individual artists from around the world in a way that will illuminate some of the concerns and issues that are really prevalent in society, one of them being globalism. I’ve tried to give Dan what I had always wanted when I was a curator, which is a very high degree of autonomy to do a program. And it takes a few years to see what happens with a program.”

Cameron was hired by the New Museum in 1995, having spent the previous fourteen years as an independent critic and curator who frequently worked outside the US. “New York may be the global center, but the world is more decentered now in terms of culture,” explains Cameron, a brainy, soft-spoken fellow who used to play in a rock band. "New York is no longer the only place with recent developments worth tracking. A lot of the programming will be non-American-based for the next couple of years—with certain very major exceptions, which are local, home-grown artists of great importance to me who have not been recognized by an American museum in any significant way.

“I like the idea of rewriting recent history and using the curatorial act to do that,” he continues. “It started with the Carolee Schneemann show. Schneemann has had this incredible influence on so many people in the New York art world, but when the history of the 1960s got written, she was sort of a footnote, then boom, the book was closed. A lot of curators are now trying to pry that open and say, ‘Wait a minute, the history of the 1960s hasn’t been written yet. We’re still writing it.’ Things that were ignored the first time around may suddenly thirty years later be incredibly important. I’m interested in how cultural gestures translate into art history.” Cameron will continue his exploration of the art world’s recent past with upcoming exhibitions devoted to Martin Wong and David Wojnarowicz, two artists who came of age in the heyday of the East Village scene in the ’80s.

Although Tucker hopes to convert part of the New Museum’s basement into an auditorium one day, she has no further expansion plans. “I’m not sure we want to become so huge that you won’t feel you’re in a situation that’s kind of your size,” she explains. “It’s one of the reasons people love to go to the Frick.”

William Harris is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.