Five years ago, when the Metropolitan Museum was redoing its Fifth Avenue plaza and making noise about becoming a force in contemporary art, I had an idea: why not install contemporary art on the vacant plinths on either side of the great stairs? I presented the idea in an op-ed published in The New York Observer on August 15, 2013, and later pitched it in person to Tom Campbell, the director at the time, and his staff. His successor as director, Max Hollein, tells me that the museum now plans to carry out the idea. Speaking with him at the “Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” reception at the MetBreuer on Monday night, we got onto the topic of contemporary art and his desire to move the program back to the Met Fifth Avenue. I told him about my op-ed and asked if he thought the Met plinths idea would work. He replied with some excitement, “That’s exactly what we’re doing!” I wanted to learn more, but before I could get details about the project another guest caught his attention and he was off. Two other officials with knowledge of the museum confirmed that the plan was moving forward.
Hollein has made known that he wants the contemporary art program in the Fifth Avenue building where it can be presented in relationship and proximity to the historical collections. With space in the main building already tight, mounting contemporary art on the façade would serve several functions. It would announce to the public the museum’s engagement with contemporary art, and do so without putting additional pressure on the already packed scheduling in the galleries. It would serve to enliven and enhance the plaza – the trees are growing in, but the bland twin fountains and their flaccid spouts could use some help – and provide an enticement to enter and explore the rest of the museum. And it would enable the museum’s contemporary art curators to fully engage with living artists. It could be called The Met Plaza program. Artists could compete for the short-term commissions that would become highlights of the city’s cultural life, and a much-anticipated changing feature of the street life around the iconic stairs.
The projects would enliven the area in front of the museum, which already features fountains and allees of trees flanking the great stairs.
Each plinth is a recess about 35 feet long, 15 feet deep, and the height of the entire façade—large enough to support statues, two-dimensional images, assemblages, mechanical pieces, even performances, sound pieces, video works or just about anything else that contemporary artists imagine. And between the paired columns that bracket the spaces are stone blocks designed to carry figurative sculptures, a tradition that contemporary artists embrace and often subvert.
The platforms have footprints large enough to stage a variety of projects, and there are no ceilings, so displays could reach or even surpass the height of the facade.
At the top of The Met façade, the entablature still features stacks of unhewn stone that were to be carved into allegorical groups of the four great periods of art. Those enigmatic piles of raw material serve as a metaphor for the potential of human creativity; the Met Plaza projects could be seen as drafts for how today’s artists would realize the unfinished plan. But, perhaps more important for a non-profit institution, the prominence and prestige of the commissions would be a magnet for patronage. As I noted in my op-ed, the series could serve as a billboard for philanthropists, foundations and corporations willing to foot the bill in exchange for association with a high-visibility program at the preeminent art museum. In an age when art collectors increasingly devote their attention to contemporary art, there would be no shortage of sponsors willing to fund – perhaps to name – the Met Plaza program.
The arches now filled with banners could instead contain commissioned installations of contemporary art that change regularly.
It will take a great deal of staff time and money, but the Met plinths promise to ratchet up the museum’s involvement with contemporary art at a time when the program is in limbo. Neither Hollein nor Met president and CEO Dan Weiss has declared outright that the museum will not renew its eight-year lease on the Breuer building in 2023, but I expect that is exactly what will happen. The separate venue is expensive to operate, and the Met has other priorities, notably repairing the Fifth Avenue roof, reinstalling the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and the delayed reconstruction of the SouthWest Wing. Even if the museum were to identify a source of funds to endow the MetBreuer the preference would likely be to direct those resources to the Fifth Avenue projects. (The Whitney, which owns the Breuer, would probably welcome the prospect of selling it and paying off debt on their new building downtown, though doing so may require permission from Leonard Lauder, who placed an undisclosed time restriction on sale of the Breuer building as a condition of his $131 million gift to the museum in 2008.)
The Met’s former chief curator of modern and contemporary art, Gary Tinterow, explained to me in interviews back in 2010 that the Met intended to lease the Breuer as an interim venue for contemporary art while the southwest wing was under construction. Over the course of the lease the museum could relocate its modern and contemporary program a few blocks away, and experiment with ways to present that material in the context of the museum’s historical works. But, the $3-million renovation of the Breuer building and the $17-million annual operating cost is straining the budget, and the trustees have postponed construction of the southwest wing, leaving the Met with a choice – operate the MetBreuer long-term, or end the lease and integrate contemporary art into the Fifth Avenue program while restarting the project for the new wing. Placing contemporary art on the façade will announce the Met’s ongoing engagement with contemporary art, and could continue to bolster the museum’s relevance and popularity even after the new wing is completed.
It is satisfying to know that the Met Plaza program that I proposed five years ago might move ahead under new leadership. I look forward to learning more about the museum’s plans and to writing about the initiative as it unfolds.