Streams

Folk Art Museum to Sell Building to MoMA

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The past week has been a tumultuous one for the American Folk Art Museum. First, it announced last Tuesday that its executive director, Maria Ann Conelli, would step down to take a job in academia. Then, on Thursday, the Art Fair Company said it would be taking over ownership of the museum's American Antiques Show fundraising event. On Tuesday, the museum announced that it would be selling its 30,000 square-foot building to the Museum of Modern Art. The Folk Art Museum said it would be moving to a much smaller space it rents across from Lincoln Center.

The museum moved into its current home adjacent to the MoMA on West 53rd Street in 2001, and has since struggled to pay down the $32 million it borrowed to construct the building.

In a letter to its members, Museum President Laura Parsons wrote, "Efforts to balance our budget and bring meaningful fiscal stability to the museum's annual operations have been effective, but we have made little progress in raising the substantial funds necessary to satisfy the bond on our West 53rd Street building."

The Folk Art Museum has struggled along with other nonprofits during the recession, but its money problems predate the financial crisis.

"There were a lot of factors that went into this, the chief being that they just didn't start out with enough of a financial plan when they did this expansion," said Lee Rosenbaum, who blogs on arts and culture as Culturegrrl at ArtsJournal.com. "You just can't build a building and expect that people will come and fund it."

Rosenbaum said the museum's financial straits got worse when its biggest funder and former board president, Ralph Esmerian, pulled out due to his own financial and legal troubles.

MoMA, which held a "right of first refusal" on the Folk Art Museum's property prior to the decision to purchase it, has not yet provided details about what it plans to do with the new property, except that it will eventually be used for exhibition space.

"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," said a spokesman for MoMA.

Rosenbaum said the expansion was part of the Museum of Modern Art's larger strategy.

"Glen Lowry [MoMA's director] is an expansionist. If there's any property on his block that's for sale, he's had a policy of trying to acquire it, figuring that his museum will eventually need it," she said. "And they have the mega-bucks boardmembers to help accomplish that."

The Museum of Modern Art isn't the only major New York museum to expand. Also on Wednesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would be taking over management of the Whitney Museum's current location on 75th Street in 2015. The Whitney is planning to relocate to a new building in the Meatpacking district.

The American Folk Art Museum said it would continue to showcase parts of its collection of traditional objects and works by self-taught artists at its smaller Lincoln Square location. The museum said it would also be looking into hosting new traveling exhibitions and developing new partnerships with other cultural organizations to make ends meet.

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