The Museum of Lost Museums

Touring a cultural Bizarro World where the words of the MTA graphic designers are written on the subway walls. The only problem: They’re almost all outdated, confusing, inaccurate or just plain wrong.

| 11 Nov 2019 | 05:41

For better or worse, the latest territorial expansion of one museum on West 53rd Street could never have been accomplished without the real estate deal that triggered the total obliteration of another.

The Museum of Modern Art quite literally bulldozed its way through a controversy that erupted when it purchased the home of its next-door neighbor to the west, the American Folk Art Museum.

It ignored the howling of critics, architects and preservationists seeking to save the beloved if quirky building as it advanced its broader artistic mission – reimagining how Modernism is showcased in the 21st century.

MoMA bought the distinctive structure in 2011 as the smaller museum exited midtown to reclaim property it owned at 2 Lincoln Square, then in 2014, unapologetically demolished the folk-art gem.

Into that void it built new gallery space, elongating its linear campus to the west. And thus, on Oct. 21, it officially unveiled its latest supersized addition, the fifth since it opened its doors on 53rd Street in 1939.

But there is one place on the block where, if you believe the writing on the wall, this entire drama never occurred. MoMA’s latest $450 million makeover? Never happened. Its $858 million overhaul in 2004? Nope.

As for the Folk Art Museum, it was never razed. In fact, it hadn’t even opened yet. But the masterwork by husband-and-wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien was under construction and said to be “coming soon.”

The time-defying setting is the downtown platform wall of the Fifth Avenue / 53rd Street subway station on the E and M lines, known as the MTA’s “Art Stop.” Filled with 73 eye-catching, porcelain enamel panels, it utilizes photos and graphics to portray and promote a range of museums and cultural treasures, all supposedly found on the streets above.

A Gallery of Ghosts

But Art Stop was installed in 2000. The two intervening decades saw a meteoric rise in real estate valuations. And a corresponding shakeout of museums and arts nonprofits struggling to stay afloat in midtown.

The result is that all six institutions featured in the exhibit – four on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, two around the corner – were suddenly in play: Two were torn down, three left the neighborhood, three rebranded and changed their names, and only one, MoMA, remained, doubling its footprint, in part by gobbling up space vacated by two ex-neighbors.

Exactly none of these epochal changes are reflected in Art Stop. The place has turned into a kind of time capsule. Walkable, explorable, it is almost a museum in itself – a parallel universe, preserved in amber – in which cultural historians can mine a vanished era that’s merely 19 years old.

Where's Winnie?

But a public space broadcasting bad or misleading information without qualifiers can also have real-life consequences as unsuspecting tourists get bum steers, outdated tips and confusing or inaccurate directions.

Consider the McGrath family of Minnesota: Eight-year-old Ellen had wanted to see the famed Winnie-the-Pooh dolls, and her mother Susan had found a listing in an old online guide saying they were on display at the Donnell Library Center at 20 West 53rd St.

Sure enough, the subway wall panels still showcase the Donnell’s longtime draw. And the original characters – Winnie and best friends Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Kanga – are said to be “on exhibit” in the library’s Central Children’s Room. There’s even a large evocative photo of the five of them with the works of A. A. Milne in the foreground.

But the Donnell was closed in 2008, and the climate-controlled, bullet-proof case Winnie shared with his pals moved that year to the 42nd Street flagship of the York Public Library. The branch was demolished in 2011, and the 50-story, hyper-luxe Baccarat Hotel and Residences rose on the site.

A smaller library, essentially in the basement of the Baccarat, opened in 2016. But the Donnell name disappeared, and Winnie the Pooh never returned to the new 53rd Street Library.

“I’m going to see Eeyore, I’m going to see Eeyore!” Ellen McGrath cried out, referring to her favorite.

The McGraths were lucky. By happenstance, a transit worker passing by had watched the scene unfold, and she helpfully explained what had happened and where the dolls could now be found, and so the family good-naturedly left the subway and walked south toward the main library.

“You’ll still get to see Eeyore!” said Susan McGrath. She explained that this was her daughter’s first trip to the city, and that she had no intention of letting a few “alternative facts” get in the way.

The Bureaucracy Responds

Of course, not every encounter with wrong information will have such a happy ending.

So Straus News asked the MTA if it was concerned about potentially misleading tourists and New Yorkers with old information – and if it had considered adding an explanatory panel to update the location of the museums and their names today to address any possible confusion.

The response:

“We’re working on an update to this installation and will have more information to share in the near future,” said Andrei Berman, an agency spokesperson.

No timetable or other specifics were provided, but these are among the fallacies in Art Stop that could possibly be redressed:

* The American Folk Art Museum is said to be “coming to 53rd Street soon.” Actually, it came (in 2001, after breaking ground in 1999) and then left (in 2011, for its old home at Lincoln Square) after defaulting on $32 million in bond debt and selling its building at 45 West 53rd St. to MoMA, which razed it three years later.

* The photo of MoMA in the art panels depicts a modest-sized, almost quaint-looking museum that hadn’t been altered since 1984, bearing scant resemblance to today’s sprawl. Nothing in the images shows how MoMA transformed 53rd Street into a glass-and-steel canyon that “can bring to mind the headquarters of Darth Vader’s hedge fund,” as New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in an October review.

* The “American Craft Museum,” located at 40 West 53rd St. Those two simple facts are both wrong. It hasn’t used that name since 2002, when it became the Museum of Arts and Design. And it left the block in 2008, moving up to Columbus Circle. Unsurprisingly, the space is now occupied by the MoMA Design Store.

* The “Museum of Television & Radio,” located at 25 West 52nd St. Well, at least the address is right. It was rebranded the Paley Center for Media in 2007 and hasn’t functioned as a traditional museum in years.

* The Municipal Art Society of New York, located in the 1884 Villard Houses at 457 Madison Ave., and showcasing a public exhibition space called the Urban Center. But it decamped from the brownstones across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dec. 2009, moved up to 57th St. and shuttered the Urban Center, where it held civic-minded lectures, panel discussions, exhibits and design presentations.

“We have since returned to the corner of 51st and Madison Avenue in the landmark LOOK Building, across the street from our former home,” MAS said in a statement.

“Although we no longer have a formal public exhibition space, much of the advocacy work reflected in the station ads – such as our campaign to protect the public realm from shadows cast by private development – continues to this day,” it added. “We also host frequent public events at the new office, like our upcoming ‘Closer LOOK: Artists Rights’ event on Nov. 18.”

“So what are you waiting for?” one of the Art Stop display panels asks. “Head on up and see the sights!” it grandly proclaims.

But of the six sights promoted in the MTA’s underground time warp, not a single one exists as advertised.

“So what are you waiting for? Head on up and see the sights!”
Display panel on a midtown E train station platform