Museum of Modern Art reopens

Claude Monet's Water Lilies on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Sunday.
Claude Monet's Water Lilies on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Sunday.PHOTO: NYTIMES

More than 10,000 visited the museum for free on its first day of opening on Sunday - after having been closed for four months to complete a $613-million makeover

NEW YORK • Ms Tania Thomas, one of the first visitors to see the renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art (Moma), had the new floor map in hand and an audio guide. It was not enough.

"We're walking in the wrong direction," Ms Thomas said to her daughter Eliana, 11, as they wandered the fifth floor. "Should we go to the beginning and start over?"

Mr Jeff Madrick, a long-time museum member, said he was surprised by some of the artworks he hadn't seen before.

"I don't remember the small Legers or the Stuart Davis," he said, referring to work by French painter Fernand Leger and the American modernist painter.

His wife, Ms Kim Baker, was pleased to see a roomful of pieces by Romania-born sculptor Constatin Brancusi as well as works by American painter Mary Cassatt, on view for the first time in 20 years.

"We're very happy to be back and to see such thoughtful presentations," Ms Baker said.

The museum reopened to the public on Sunday after having been closed for four months to complete a US$450-million (S$613-million) expansion and reorganisation.

Drawn by a special offer - free admission - announced on social media and the museum's website the day before, about 10,000 visitors poured in on Sunday to see where some of their favourite artworks had ended up - and what else the museum was able to fit into its 24 new galleries.

Given how much new space there is to navigate, it was no wonder visitors took a while to get their bearings.

As they entered the new expanded lobby, many gravitated towards the electronic information sign - with columns labelled "West", "North" and "South" - to decide which way to go.

Staff wearing lanyards and carrying maps approached visitors with friendly "Welcome to Moma" greetings and offered to help direct them.

But even employees seemed unsure of themselves.

"Is there a lift that way?" one visitor asked. "I think so," answered a staff, opening one of her maps.

In the galleries - where overheard languages included French, German, Japanese and Spanish - many guests opted to wear audio guide headsets.

The new maps helped too. But for the most part, visitors began Moma's new era creating their own mental maps, figuring out where their favourite pieces now resided and taking note of other artworks that the museum's curators had positioned around them.

Perhaps most noticeable to Moma regulars was the museum's decision to upend its traditional organisation, abandoning a linear narrative of modern art in favour of a more eclectic approach, with galleries organised by theme and new acquisitions by women and artists of colour mixed in among war horses by white European men.

Ms Liz Bejarano, who was given a year-long membership by being the first person in line, wanted to see her favourite works, French painter Claude Monet's Water Lilies and French artist Henri Matisse's Dance.

When she found the Matisse, tears filled her eyes.

"I feel peace," she said. "I feel I need to dance and to try to repeat these movements."

Monet's three-panelled Water Lilies now has a room to itself.

Ms Bejarano sat on one of the black ottomans in front of the triptych and contemplated the colours.

"It feels more intimate," she said of the space.

Her only complaint: She wished she could enjoy the paintings in silence. An excerpt from director Dziga Vertov's 1931 Soviet film Entuziazm (Enthusiasm) - which features factory and industrial sounds - was playing in the neighbouring gallery.

"This noise - this mix of classical art with I-don't-know-what art - disturbs me a little," she said.

Ms Rachel Heller, 57, a blogger visiting from the Netherlands with her sister, Ms Nina Heller, 55, and nephew, Mr Sean Murray, 22, who live in Connecticut, pronounced the new Moma "beautiful".

"It's big and roomy and airy," said Ms Rachel Heller.

She particularly liked Faith Ringgold's 1967 work American People Series #20: Die, a striking 3.6m-long double canvas depicting a race riot and its placement near Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon.

"It certainly references Guernica," she said of the Ringgold, referring to Picasso's epic 1937 painting.

Ms Rachel Heller made sure to seek out Starry Night by her countryman Vincent van Gogh, arguably the museum's most famous possession.

Her only critical note was the placement of the van Gogh, which she said was likely to create traffic problems when the museum is more crowded.

"It's probably not great to put it in the corner," Ms Rachel Heller said. "That should be in the middle of the wall."

There are new areas altogether, such as the street-level Projects Gallery, free to the public; the second-floor Creativity Lab, where the museum's education department will explore ideas and art processes; and a fourth-floor double-height studio for performance, dance, music and sound works.

There are also new amenities, such as a sixth-floor cafe, couches connecting the existing eastern portion to the new western addition and an expanded store that has been moved below ground.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2019, with the headline 'Museum of Modern Art reopens'. Print Edition | Subscribe