Metropolitan Museum Should Expand under Fifth Avenue Plaza

The Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to renovate the entire Fifth Avenue plaza in front of the museum, but the project will not include building new subterranean space, which was the scheme earlier in the decade until a lawsuit from neighbors led to scaling back the plan.
Fifth Avenue plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fifth Avenue plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recent reports on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s plans to renovate the plaza in front of its building neglect to mention what happened last time the museum intended to overhaul that space: wealthy neighbors across Fifth Avenue sued the museum saying they would not stand for construction disrupting their lives and allegedly driving down property values.

In 2004 State Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit on a statute-of-limitations technicality, but cautioned that an appeal based on the merits of the complaint stood a good chance of success. The museum withdrew its plans for the plaza construction.

The initial idea in 2000 had been to add 100,000 square feet of underground space for storage and other purposes. The museum’s president, Emily Rafferty, tells me that financial considerations after September 11, 2001 contributed to the decision to scale back the plan, and that Con Ed installations would make the excavation complex. But the threat of confrontation with the powerful Fifth Avenue neighbors surely played a part in curtailing the Met’s ambitions.

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Which is a shame, because the underground expansion was a good idea. Space is a dire problem for the Met, which abides by zoning regulations that forbid increasing its footprint; the only ways to expand on-site are by reconfiguring existing space, adding onto the roof, or digging underground. (The ongoing overhaul of the American Wing includes underground expansion, and the future makeover of the Wallace Wing likely will, as well.) The renovation of the Fifth Avenue plaza is a rare opportunity for the Met to capture much needed space, but spokesman Harold Holzer says, “We are not making plans to build beneath the plaza.”

But perhaps Mr. Holzer, who earlier in his career worked on political campaigns, is making a Clintonesque statement that hinges on the verb “to be.” That is, the Met is not at this moment making plans to excavate, which is not to say that such plans could not arise in the course of designing the project. When I asked Ms. Rafferty if the likelihood of opposition from the neighbors was a factor in deciding not to excavate, she said, “Your question is premature as there are no specific plans yet.”

The Met has hired Philadelphia- and Los Angeles-based landscape architects OLIN to create a design. Ms. Rafferty says an initial scheme will be ready in about a year, with the project targeted for completion within around four years. “Any design that we finalize will be respectful of the integrity of the building and the community,” says Ms. Rafferty. And to become final, any design must pass review by city zoning, planning, landmarks and community boards.

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The museum already appeared before Community Board 8 to let its members know about the planned renovation.  “We hold regular meetings with our neighbors and will continue to do so,” says Ms. Rafferty, noting that the museum’s chief government affairs officer, Tom Schuler, oversees the outreach.  As yet there has been no objection, but then, no design has been proposed. But who knows how the neighbors will respond? Queries emailed to Pat Nicholson, leader of the coalition whose lawsuit scuttled the earlier project, went unanswered.

Ms. Rafferty says, “In the event that the neighbors express concerns, we will certainly address them…I’d like to think that we can work to come to a resolution if they do have comments. We fully respect our neighbors and hope they will agree that whatever plan we develop will provide a marvelous way to enter the museum and will respect our surroundings.”

The museum recently cleaned the facade, renovated the great stairs and repaired the existing fountains, but the new initiative promises even greater aesthetic and functional enhancement, not least the crowd-dispersing improvement of access through street-level entrances. Let’s hope that the neighbors will consider not only their own short-term concerns, but also the long-term needs of the Metropolitan and the city whose residents and visitors it serves.

Jason Edward Kaufman

http://jasonkaufman.info

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3 Responses

  1. To the readers–and Jason Kaufman–from Harold Holzer, Senior Vice President for External Affairs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    REPLY FROM THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

    As we have repeatedly made clear, the Metropolitan has no plan, intention, or aspiration to excavate under its Fifth Avenue plaza. As the Met determined some time ago, the cost of such a project would be prohibitive, as Con Edison generators live beneath part of the space, and could not be moved even if the institution so desired. To suggest that we are now toying with words and phrases to conceal a hidden agenda here is preposterous, and we know that our neighbors will not take such speculation seriously.

  2. Wishful thinking on my part. As board conversations are not made public, we cannot know definitively why the museum is electing not to reprise the earlier plan to excavate and add space. One thing is certain, it seems unlikely that a philanthropic committee with the resources of the Met’s trustees would find moving the generators “prohibitive” in terms of cost or politics. Whether or not fear of another fight with the neighbors contributed to the decision, the facelift – however beautiful and functional – inevitably will be recognized as an institutional opportunity only partially seized.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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  • Gary Tinterow and Modern Art at the Metropolitan

    August 26, 2010, 1:16 am

    Gary Tinterow’s Contemporary Art Agenda for the Metropolitan Museum

    In a wide-ranging interview, the chief curator of modern and contemporary art discusses collection sharing, acquisitions strategy, renovation of the Wallace Wing, negotiations to lease the Whitney’s Breuer building, and more.

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