New Museum: the story of a start-up

The New Museum truly stands for its name! Located at 235 Bowery at the joint border of two of the most vibrant neighborhoods of Manhattan (Soho and the Lower East) the New Museum represents one of the major -if not the major- institution devoted to Contemporary Art in New York and in the world. I also believe it’s the most innovative, artist-oriented and avant-garde (if I dare say) museum in New York.

In the field of museology, the New Museum is considered as a rather new institution in the city that hosts the 141-year-old Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 84-year-old Museum of Modern Art or the 76-year-old Guggenheim. Established in 1977, the New Museum is only 36 years old! But it is its story and the passion behind its creation that really makes it a remarquable institution.

The first notable characteristic of the New Museum is that it was founded by a woman. The late Marcia Tucker, who was one of the most prodigious curator and art historian of her generation, realized the urging need to provide a proper exhibition space for living artists. Initially, the institutional function of this new venture was to act as the middle ground between a traditional museum and an exhibition space devoted for art produced by living artists as its mission read: “an exhibition, information, and documentation center for contemporary art made within a period of approximately ten years prior to the present.” Showcasing many artists who were regrettably victims of AIDS, the mission statement was later edited to include recently deceased artists as well.

The initiative started with a small staff of four people in 1977 in a small office in Tribeca with off-site exhibition spaces. With time, the success of exhibitions and the growing popularity of the venture generated the need to expand the scope and scale of the museum and move out from its previously smaller locations. Thus on December 2007, the project to build a big exhibition space came to life. In its current location on Bowery, the building is now a five-floor dynamic exhibition space in addition to having a theater and a Sky Room.

Left: "Memory": first exhibition (at C Space in 1977). Installation view. Right: Marcia Tucker, Founding Director of the New Museum, ca. 1973–75

Left: “Memory”: first exhibition (at C Space in 1977). Installation view. Right: Marcia Tucker, Founding Director of the New Museum, ca. 1973–75

The words of John Cotton Dana –founding director of The Newark Museum in New Jersey – dating back to 1917 have highly influenced modern museum architecture (such as that of the MoMA and the Guggenheim). Dana was the first to argue against the typical Greek temple or Italian palace concept still adopted by museums in the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps the most original feature of the New Museum resides in its adoption of contemporary architecture; the design by Tokyo based architecture firm Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA Ltd consists of a superposed non-linear arrangement of boxes.

Rendering of the New Museum at 235 Bowery (picture from NewMuseum website)

Rendering of the New Museum at 235 Bowery (picture from NewMuseum website)

But what is expected from a “new” museum such as the New Museum? The role of museums in contemporary society is a matter that has been and is still very debated among scholars, critics and museums directors. The challenge of an institution such as the New Museum is twofold: the museum has to avoid the mistakes of the older museums and conform to the current expectations of the public without compromising the importance of the art.

The New Museum has indeed proceeded to become an entrepreneurial museum;  being itself the result of ambitious art advocates, one of the most distinct functions of the New Museum is its interest in dynamic ideas such combining art with technology. Numerous collaborations with organizations such as Rhizome, Art Spaces Directory, Ideas City and many more has allowed it to rapidly expand in the museum world and become a visionary in the field of art. Its most recent addition announced a couple of days ago consists of transforming a warehouse next to the main Bowery location as a space for start-ups and entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. The warehouse will be open 24/7 as an “incubator for cutting-edge art, design and technology”. (The Art Newspaper)

Sadly, the New Museum sometimes stands in the shadows of bigger art institutions in New York. Yet, its dedication to contemporary art is without any doubts recognized and valued in the art world. The New Museum is a living example of a museum recently built by scratch, driven solely by its unconditional dedication to contemporary art and ideas.

Massimiliano Gioni (only 39) is the associate director and director of exhibitions for the New Museum, He was appointed to be the 2013 Venice Biennale curator

Massimiliano Gioni (only 39) is the associate director and director of exhibitions for the New Museum. He was appointed as the 2013 Venice Biennale curator!

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