PRINT May 1999

US News

the MoMA/ P.S. 1 merger

“HEY, THAT’S NICE,” quickly followed by “Uh-oh.” So goes the near-unanimous reaction of the art world to the probable merger of the august, hyper-institutional Museum of Modern Art and the capaciously funky P.S. I Contemporary Arts Center. To recapitulate, P.S. I—the recently renovated former public school in Long Island City, Queens, which has been nurtured and kept integrity-intense for more than twenty years by its founder, Alanna Heiss—signed a letter of intent to nestle itself under the protective umbrella of MoMA, that Manhattan bastion of black-tie vernissages and modernist correctness. Though MoMA’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, has indicated that all systems are go—arguing that “by working with P.S. I and its studio program, MoMA’s engagement with contemporary art will be dramatically extended”—at this writing the merger is still not technically set in cement. “We’ll see how it goes informally for maybe six months,” MoMA president Agnes Gund says. “If it doesn’t work out for whatever reasons, we can still both go our own ways.” Gund, an enthusiast of the initiative, doesn’t see it not working out, although she does acknowledge a possibility (at least a teensy one) that truly edgy and inconvenient contemporary art could find itself ghettoized across the East River.

MoMA’s problem is that the institution is such a powerful magnet for tourists—its Jackson Pollock retrospective brought in about four thousand people a day, almost half from out of town, a good many arriving primarily to visit the show—that (if we're talking pure turnstile) it hardly needs to stretch beyond permanent-collection masterpieces and classic-modern blockbusters. Given this state of affairs, MoMA could very easily declare the “modern art” in its name a closed case and barricade its loading dock against all manner of videos, installations, performances, weird sculpture, and transgressive paintings. But this would mean relinquishing its traditional connection, however nominal by now, to living, breathing art, and director Lowry states unequivocally that “the future of MoMA lies in its commitment to contemporary art,” in “seeking as many ways as possible to explore what is happening today.” P.S. I, on the other hand, enjoys the passionate support—more passion than support, actually—of scruffy, struggling artists from Williamsburg to Westbeth. But it lacks institutional security (i.e., money). P.S. I so depends, in fact, on the maternal ministrations of Ms. Heiss that many wonder whether the institution, as currently constituted, could ever survive her departure. So the “Hey, that's nice” part is easy to figure out: MoMA gets a roomy contemporary-art venue and a lot of artists' goodwill in the bargain, and P.S. T gets financial, administrative, archival, promotional, and possibly curatorial buttressing.

Curatorial? Uh-oh again. As painter David Humphrey puts it, “The more separate institutions making decisions for their own reasons, the better. I'm worried about there being fewer independent curatorial voices in the city.” Critic Michael Brenson fleshes out the view: “P.S. I served a purpose in the city that no one else did. It defined ‘alternative’ as anything outside the sphere of art-world power at a given moment. And that hasn't meant just new artists.” In addition to a steady stream of untested talent and signature shows devoted to edgy mavericks like David Hammons, he points to the institution's toothy, decidedly un-marquee exhibitions featuring Michael Tracy, John McLaughlin, and Alan Saret. If the MoMA merger, in Brenson's view, `alternative space,'“ he hastens to add that ”it would be fine if people like Rob Storr [arguably MoMA's most ambitious contemporary curator] get to do shows they couldn't do at MoMA."

Dealer Brooke Alexander sees the pending merger as a total plus. “First, it allows P.S. I to survive, and it acknowledges that Alanna built a place with lasting spirit,” he says. “As for MoMA, it's been on hold in terms of doing anything that it was famous for throughout its earlier history. In the '50s and '60s, it wasn't nearly the stately institution that it is now. If MoMA runs P.S. I as an experimental laboratory for gnarly art, that's OK. And, as for the complaint that the most contemporary stuff will be dumped out in Queens, the audience for gnarly will go where gnarly is.”

The real downside, as far as anyone can tell, is that MoMA has effectively wriggled off the hook in terms of having to decide whether to make a real commitment to showing rough-hewn contemporary art in its midtown venue. If, as some fear, the institution settles ever more comfortably into its role as high-modern matron, the question becomes: Will the crowds cross the river? Skeptics are taking a “that-and-a-token” stance when it comes to the “cultural corridor” sound bite the museum has been throwing out (only two stops on the E and F from MoMA to 23rd Street Queens). Big picture aside, you do hate to think the art inside MoMA's forthcoming Yoshio Taniguchi-designed expansion is going to look the way the plans for the outside make it look like it's going to look.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic for Newsweek.