A Look at New York’s MoMA expansion

ONE OF THE FIRST things you see as you enter the Museum of Modern Art’s newly expanded home are the words Hello. Again. writ large in black near the airport-style ticket counter. Not a greeting exactly, though you could take it that way, the coolly measured welcome is an artwork from 2013 by Haim Steinbach, who collects and exhibits found objects, including statements.

The work is doubly apt. Yes, MoMA reopened in October with a flourish after closing for four months to put the finishing touches on its dramatically enlarged Midtown headquarters. And yes, the museum has undergone yet another renovation and expansion, as that ambivalent “again.” implies—a $450 million collaboration between mega-firm Gensler and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architectural team that brought us Lincoln Center’s stylish 2010 renovations and the adventurous Shed performance space in Hudson Yards. 

But you can also read a note of triumph and, perhaps, relief in Steinbach’s prominently placed installation. From the moment you enter the newly spacious lobby, cool and contemporary with black walnut wood paneling and whimsical ceiling lights that serenely rise and fall, MoMA just feels right—for the first time in a long time.

Measuring a colossal 708,000 square feet, the museum has 30 percent more elbow room, nearly all of it exhibition space. Three airy floors of galleries, many devoted to the unrivaled permanent collection, expand seamlessly from the older building into the new West Wing, former home to the Museum of American Folk Art. And though it’s now (a) a stretch to see everything in one day and (b) easy to get lost, your chances of a memorable experience are quadrupled by a spectacular rehanging of the permanent collection; smart additions like the Creativity Lab, where you can unleash your inner artist; expanded spaces for performances and experimental programming; and abundant creature comforts, including multiple eating options overseen by restaurateur Danny Meyer and well-placed lounges, where you can catch your breath and revel in the wonders you’ve taken in.

Expansions are nothing new at MoMA, where the building has consistently had trouble accommodating the museum’s growing collection and the changing demands of contemporary art. Founded in 1929 in modest rented quarters, MoMA claimed its first permanent home in 1939, a tidy, six-story International Style building by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone dropped like a glass-fronted alien among West 53rd Street’s genteel town houses. Subsequent expansions engineered by Philip Johnson in 1964, Cesar Pelli in 1984 and Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004 did much to transform the building, and street, into a corporate canyon of glass and steel that “brings to mind the headquarters of Darth Vader’s hedge fund,” as architecture critic Michael Kimmelman put it. No one ever accused MoMA of being warm and fuzzy.

The new MoMA transforms many of those chilly fundamentals into assets, warming things up with white oak floors and using those miles of glass to embrace the Midtown cityscape almost as part of the collection. It offers visitors the architectural gift of the Blade Stair, a staircase enclosed in a bird’s-eye maple atrium and braced by a 6-inch-thick sliver of vertical spine that makes the steps appear to float. 

Though not a statement building like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or an idiosyncratic one of a kind like the Guggenheim Museum or Paris’ Fondation Louis Vuitton, MoMA instead shines brightly as a vibrant, engaging, well-thought-out environment that is equally hospitable to its incomparable art collection and the three million visitors who come to see it each year. And that’s reason to cheer.

Which brings us to Part II of the MoMA transformation, the reimagining of the art. Enriched by the lion’s share of the museum’s 24 new galleries, the permanent collection is now presented chronologically, thematically and inclusively. Instead of galleries devoted only to painting, sculpture or video, any combination of these and other mediums like photography, architecture and design can come together as needed to showcase a theme, complete with the attendant affinities and frictions. It’s like seeing art in the real world. The sensation is thrilling. 

The reimagining opens the way for galleries like “Paris 1920s,” which matches up paintings by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Stuart Davis and bon vivant Gerald Murphy with a Surrealist Man Ray chess set and a gorgeous black lacquer screen by modernist designer Eileen Gray. Or “Breaking the Mold,” where Minimalist pieces by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin meet up with a sexually charged 1938 watercolor by Italian artist Carol Rama and a video of hand movements by choreographer Yvonne Rainer. Or the heart-stopping, window-backed gallery devoted exclusively to Brancusi sculptures. 

The reimagining also puts the permanent collection in flux. Galleries will change every six to nine months, almost like temporary exhibitions, keeping things fresh and allowing more work from MoMA’s vast collection to see daylight. That means Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” will still be on view, just surrounded by different companions.

Another plus: increased opportunities for boutique shows taken from the permanent collection, like “Frank O’Hara, Lunchtime Poet.” Set in a small gallery like a visual palate cleanser, this snapshot of New York’s midcentury art and literary culture includes a Larry Rivers portrait of O’Hara, whose day job was as a MoMA curator.

What else has been reimagined? You no longer need to hunt for work by women artists, artists of color and artists from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Two sizable solo shows celebrate the provocative videos of New York performance artist Pope.L (through Feb. 1) and Los Angeles artist Betye Saar, whose assemblages challenge stereotypes of African Americans (through Jan. 4). 

And a highlight of the reopening is “Sur moderno,” the unveiling of the magnificent Patricia Phelps de Cisneros gift of Latin American abstract art. In keeping with MoMA’s new ethos, relevant examples from the permanent collection make cameo appearances—like Piet Mondrian’s rhythmic “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” the inspiration for Jesús Rafael Soto’s “Double Transparencia” seen vibrating on the adjoining wall.

So arrive early, brave the crowds and settle in. The new MoMA is looking very good at 90.