Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA)

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Museum of Modern Art MOMA

Greatest collection of modern art in the world

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York houses one of the world’s most important collections of modern art, with six curatorial departments: Architecture and Design, Drawings, Film and Media, Painting and Sculpture, Photography, and Prints and Illustrated Books. 

History

MOMA expanded over the first decade of its existence, moving three times before settling into a new, strikingly Modernist building in Manhattan designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone. This opened to the public in 1939, but it was expanded in the 1950s and 1960s according to plans by architect Philip Johnson, including the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Cesar Pelli’s designs for a new west wing and extensive renovations in 1984 resulted in a significant expansion of gallery space and facilities. 

21st Century Building Programme

MOMA embarked on a monumental building programme in the early twenty-first century, intending to nearly double its space, establishing a new Education and Research Center, and expanding its Library and Archives. MOMA’s central Manhattan location was closed in 2002 to allow the new scheme to be completed by 2005, with the museum’s collections and exhibitions made available to the public through the opening of a new museum (MOMA QNS) in a redesigned and renovated factory building in Long Island City, Queens.

Museum of Modern Art MOMA
Museum of Modern Art MOMA

Mission Established

Alfred H. Barr Jr. was the first director of MOMA, which was founded in 1929 with the explicit intention of providing a contemporary alternative to the more traditional collections commonly found in American museums and galleries. Part of the organisation’s original mission was to “encourage and develop the study of modern arts and their application to manufacturing and public life.” To achieve this goal, the Department of Architecture and Industrial Art was founded in 1932. This department’s original ethos reflected the tenets of Modernism as exemplified in the work of the European avant-garde, particularly those architects and designers associated with the Bauhaus in Germany. 

Machine Art Exhibition

The Machine Art exhibition, curated by architectural modernist Philip Johnson, was the first firmly design-oriented show in 1934, the year the Design Collection was formally inaugurated. From laboratory glassware to industrial insulators, many industrial products were displayed as aesthetic objects, reflecting the Modernist penchant for clean, machine produced forms, characterised by a lack of decoration and a firm embrace of ‘the spirit of the age.’ 

Collection Focus

MOMA’s collecting and exhibiting outlook was dominated by a strong sense of moral didacticism for much of its early existence. The ideas of ‘truth to materials and ‘honesty of construction’ that had emerged in the minds of early design reformers such as Augustus Welby Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris were reconciled with the symbolic embrace of the twentieth-century materials and mass-production technologies. Such an attitude was emphasised in MOMA’s design exhibitions during the 1930s, which favoured the work of the European avant-garde over the more ephemeral, streamlined outlook of many everyday American products. This was implicitly echoed in MOMA’s 1949 publication of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius, which was expanded and lavishly illustrated. 

Early Leadership

Eliot Noyes, a well-known industrial designer, served as Director of Industrial Design at MOMA from 1940 to 1942 and again from 1945 to 1946. In 1941, he organised the Organic Design in Home Furnishing competition. Charles Eames won two prizes, one for a moulded plywood chair and the other for modular design, with the help of his wife Ray and in collaboration with Eero Saarinen. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. took over as director of the Department of Industrial Design at MOMA after Suzanne WassonTucker left. From 1950 to 1955, he organised a series of Good Design exhibitions in conjunction with the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. He wrote several morally charged texts such as What Is Modern Design? (1950). Kaufmann aimed what he saw as the materially excessive and overindulgent styling of many contemporary American products instead of the clean lines of many of their European counterparts. The Olivetti products and graphic design seen in the Olivetti: Design in Industry exhibition of 1953, described in MOMA publicity as symbolising ‘all the visual aspects of an industry, unified under a single high standard of taste,’ epitomised this. 

Beyond Modernism

Over the following decades, there were increasing critiques of what was increasingly seen as Modernism’s restricted language, an outlook supported by the emergence of Pop, Radical Design in Italy, and a growing recognition of pluralism and diversity as realities of everyday life. MOMA’s design collecting and exhibiting policies were also harmed by Robert Venturi’s lecture series, culminating in the publication of his book Complexity and Contradiction in Modern Architecture (1966). The Argentinean Emilio Ambasz, Curator of Design from 1970 to 1975, who organised the landmark exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape in 1972, shifted design policy even further. This exhibition of Italian avant-garde design thinking looked at objects as part of a larger whole rather than individual, aesthetically self-conscious products. MOMA’s design collection has grown to over 3,000 objects in various media, including furniture, industrial design, textiles, and a visually diverse collection of graphic design totalling over 4,000 outputs, including typography and posters.

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Woodham, J. M. (2006). A dictionary of modern design. Oxford University Press.

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