Out with the old, in with the new – ‘provocative’ art galleries are gambling with our goodwill

A member of the media with Ed Ruscha's Oof (1962/3) at the newly-expanded MoMA in New York
A member of the media with Ed Ruscha's Oof (1962/3) at the newly-expanded MoMA in New York Credit: AFP/Timothy A Clary

In 1939, a decade after the opening of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in rented premises on Fifth Avenue in New York, Alfred H Barr, its founding director, found himself in Paris, taking tea with the avant-garde American writer Gertrude Stein. At the start of the century, Stein, along with her brother Leo, had been a pioneering collector of Modernist canvases by the likes of Picasso and Matisse – so her opinion about MoMA, which is now universally acknowledged as the finest collection of modern art in the world, was worth listening to. She told Barr that a museum could be either modern or a museum, but not both at the same time.

Fast-forward 80 years, and MoMA – celebrating its 90th birthday in its newly-expanded permanent home, which occupies almost an entire block in Midtown Manhattan – is still grappling with the inherent tension that Stein identified. How can an institution where people flock to gaze at 19th-century masterpieces still feel “modern”, in the sense of remaining relevant and contemporary?

According to the museum’s current director, Glenn D Lowry, speaking to me in New York last week for The Way I See It – a new 30-part BBC Radio 3 series and podcast about modern art, made in collaboration with MoMA, which begins tomorrow – Barr had his answer.

“He thought of the museum as a torpedo moving through time,” Lowry explains, “with the nose of the torpedo the ever-advancing future, and the tail the ever-receding past.”

Barr’s radical idea was that MoMA should “deaccession” works that were more than 50 years old, to remain as nimble as possible, but the trustees were sceptical, and the arrangement didn’t last long.

Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) at the reopened MoMA Credit: AFP/Timothy A Clary

Lowry’s vision is very different – but, in its way, just as radical. Later this month, MoMA will reopen following a $450 million (£350  million) expansion, providing more than 40,000 sq ft of additional gallery space.

Empire-building within the world of galleries and museums is not unusual; witness Tate’s serial land-grabs in recent decades. Rather, the radical element of Lowry’s masterplan is what will fill all these new galleries, as MoMA rehangs its permanent collection from top to bottom, with a thousand more objects on display than before its temporary closure over the summer.

Gone is the old sense that MoMA is Modernism’s “high temple”, offering a linear, definitive history of modern art, with canonical masterworks, mostly by dead white European and North American men.

In its place is a more open-ended curatorial vision, with an international outlook, and an emphasis on bringing into the limelight hitherto-overlooked artists of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. It’s a trend that many galleries internationally have been following in recent years. For instance, here in Britain, Tate Modern overhauled its own collection, by highlighting work by artists from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, back in 2016.

At MoMA, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), acquired in 1939 and arguably the museum’s most famous work, now hangs alongside a violent, mural-sized canvas painted during the civil rights movement by the African-American artist Faith Ringgold. Elsewhere, MoMA’s curators pair another old favourite, The Red Studio (1911) by Matisse, with Fiery Sunset (1973), an abstract work by the African-American painter Alma Thomas.

These are deliberately provocative, ahistorical juxtapositions, introducing a socio-political rhetoric that the curators believe is urgent and overdue. Compare the approach of the recently opened Gauguin blockbuster at the National Gallery in London, where apologetic wall-texts re-examine the Post-Impressionist painter through the prism of MeToo. Yet MoMA’s approach may not appeal to everyone: while sophisticates already versed in modern art will “get”, say, the Picasso-Ringgold connection (because it reminds us that Picasso “raided” African tribal art), it could baffle less-well-informed visitors who simply want to learn about the origins of Cubism.

In each episode of The Way I See It, a different guest picks a work from the museum’s 200,000-strong collection – and Lowry’s choice was especially revealing. He plumped for a recent piece by the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, titled Museum of Chance (2013), a changeable installation featuring more than 160 black-and-white photographs arranged in flexible teak structures. For Lowry, Singh’s installation, which is designed to be continually reconfigured, provides a vision of an “ongoing museum” – and thus offers a “metaphor or microcosm” for what the 21st-century iteration of MoMA is all about.

How fluid and “ongoing” will the new MoMA really be? I doubt that either Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or The Red Studio will end up in storage anytime soon. (Now, that would be a seriously radical move.)

Still, this is a remarkably bold vision, with less emphasis on blockbuster temporary exhibitions. It’s also, frankly, a gamble – which Lowry freely admits. “Other institutions have done this to a degree,” he says, “but changing what’s on our walls is going to be the bedrock of our practice.”

He smiles. “It’s a bit of an experiment, because we’re all in.”

The Way I See It begins on BBC Radio 3 at 10.45pm tomorrow. MoMA reopens on October 21