Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Newy Newness

New York City is kind of like a giant curio cabinet, many little cubbies of visual distractions. Even the brand new, modern-till-it-hurts, New Museum of Contemporary Art is hard to pick out from the surroundings. It's not easy to identify it as a special destination, a draw, as a place you'd slap down $12 to tour. There's a lot to compete with. It was designed by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA with Gensler, New York, and was completed in December, 2007.

My friend Ash and I, dressed in many warm layers, walked to the new New Museum a cold Thursday night to take advantage of the free hours night. We waited in the coat-check drop-off line in the lobby, a glassy floor-to-ceiling area that includes a gift and book shop, a café with uncomfortable chairs and a narrow exhibition area, then with our plastic coat check chips in hand, we took the green elevators upstairs.

The galleries felt a little like a suburban basement where the guests sleep on the pull-out couch: cement floors, clean, but closed off, with only high, narrow windows. It was flatly lit, kind of like a racket ball court. Designing simple, flexible gallery space is a challenge – there is nothing like white to exaggerate corners, edges, shadows, doorways and floors. The New Museum made me appreciate the re-design of the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, by architect Yoshio Taniguchi that was completed in 2006. This is maybe an unfair comparison considering the MOMA, on 53rd street, reigns over 630,000 square feet (58,529 sq meters) and the New Museum tends a narrow 60,000 sq feet (5,574 sq meters). At the MOMA, moving around the museum there's enough variation that you feel like you're continually discovering, moving between the closed in and the open, down passageways, around corners and up stairways. Navigating around, there are opportunities to overlook other parts of the museum, the courtyard or the surrounding streets. A slice of window will show you a floor of the museum where you were just standing minutes ago and you ou can look across the atrium on the second floor and watch people shuttering by the cut-outs up and down the building, or standing at their own perches looking at you.

Outside at night, the New Museum is a woolly tower of squares that rises over the Bowery, a busy avenue in lower Manhattan. The surface of the building is pinned with a lacey network of industrial steel weaving and tacked onto the façade is a glowing rainbow sign with the words "Hell Yes!" I could probably look this up and find the artist, or the idea behind the sign, but ..yeah, it's a big rainbow glowing sign with the words "Hell Yes!" on an otherwise gray building. "Hell Yes!" is much more noticeable than the museum's own self-ID, a street-level digital sign which glows on a large monitor hoisted up in the lobby.

Museums in New York City use many techniques - flags, signage, outdoor lighting and new architecture - to draw attention to themselves, with varying success. Museums that stand out from their neighbors architecturally probably need less exuberant signs (photos courtesy of Flickr):

MOMA gets by with not-so noticeable vertical flag (I can't tell you how many tourists I've directed to the MOMA from down the block from it)

and its next-door neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, follows a similar tactic

the MET, has flags to promote special exhibitions, but a main flag, which they might put up at times, I'm not sure, would in any case be sort of like a celebrity wearing nametag

The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, with an addition and renovation by Renzo Piano, has a sign fixed into the ground.

the Rubin Museum of Art (art of the Himalayas) employs all its windows to promote its exhibits, as well as flags, but its main sign is flat against its front, and subtle.

The American Museum of Natural History

The Whitney has a version of vertical signing, also relatively small

MORE about the New Museum of Contemporary Art:

Main website : http://www.newmuseum.org/

You can read about the branding of the New Museum of Contemporary art on the Under Consideration blog, Brand New.

Check out this extraordinary time-lapse video of the construction of the New Museum, lapsing a time period of over a year.

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