M.A.D.'s New Digs

Museum Unveils $90 Million Makeover


Special To The Courant

September 28, 2008


The museum stands like an iridescent glass and terra cotta metaphor, right in the hub of a newly gleaming Columbus Circle, about to relaunch in an ambitious new space with the appropriately titled exhibit "Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary."

Like the renaissance that has taken hold at the southwest corner of Central Park, and like the exhibit that gives mass-produced, ordinary objects new life as works of art, the latest incarnation of the Museum of Arts and Design is a second chance (or maybe a third, even a fourth, depending on who's counting) for an institution whose 52-year history has been meandering but always committed to celebrating contemporary craft, art and design.

"This has been an incredible process in the making," museum director Holly Hotchner said last week during a press preview of the $90 million project, which opened to the public Saturday.

Since its founding in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and through three moves to as many ill-fitting spaces on 53rd Street over the years, Hotchner said, "We've been a work in progress, as many contemporary art museums should be, and are."

At this newest stage, the museum is aiming to challenge the traditional boundaries that have divided fine art, decorative art, craft and design. It's also placing a larger focus on interactivity with visitors. The new space houses a 150-seat auditorium and theater that will allow its first-ever film screenings; an education center with classrooms to serve more than 7,000 children a year; and LED touch screens in the galleries, which will allow audiences to view short clips of the displayed artists in their creative process and give their work the verbal context often lost on the average museum-wanderer. The space also includes permanent open studio programs, allowing visitors to view and engage with the artists as they work.

Hotchner, who came to the museum in 1996, said its new features are a testament to the institution's renewed commitment to the world of art, craft and design, and to its deep fascination with materials and "the process of making."

It was a controversial six-year effort to overhaul the Edward Durell Stone building, a nearly windowless, white marble structure built in 1964 to house A&P supermarkets heir Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art. The museum sought to buy the building in 2002, recognizing it needed to revamp its mission and image or risk fading into arts history. After some legal push-back from preservationists, the museum purchased 2 Columbus Circle for $17 million in 2005.

The museum chose Brad Cloepfil, of Allied Works Architecture, a Portland, Ore., firm, to refurbish the building. Cloepfil gave a nod to the building's history while modernizing it to suit the museum's vision and the landmark location's glossy new veneer. He kept intact, for example, the building's signature ground-level "lollipop" columns. But he retextured its stale façade with glazed terra cotta tile and fritted glass, giving the exterior an iridescent sheen and allowing natural light to pour into its previously dim galleries.

Architecture critics may bicker over whether Cloepfil succeeded aesthetically, but for the average visitor seeking a new afternoon delight in New York City, the result is a bright and inviting museum with triple its previous space. At 54,000 square feet and with 12 floors (two of which are subterranean), the museum for the first time can dedicate galleries to its permanent collection, exhibiting and rotating up to 30 percent of its eclectic pieces.

For admirers of baubles and jewelry, the museum houses the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewelry Gallery, what it calls the country's first resource and gallery for contemporary jewelry. On the ground floor, The Store at MAD will sell trinkets and handcrafted works, including limited edition decorative and functional pieces by international artists. A top-floor, 140-seat restaurant with views of Central Park is planned for a spring 2009 opening.

"We hope we gave a great gift to New York in reopening this building," said Hotchner, adding that the overarching mission was to "finally have a proper setting for these artistic works."

On the sixth floor last week, sun spilled into the open studio where Brooklyn artist Zack Davis hunkered over a potter's wheel. As his fingers slipped over the spinning clay, people lingered to watch him work the material, asking him about his technique and intended project. After the small crowd left to explore other corners of the galleries, Davis said he suspected Hotchner and the museum had already succeeded in those hopes and visions.