It’s often overlooked that the conditions MoMA faces have radically changed. In the forties and fifties, the rest of the world, exhausted from World War II, could not buy, display, and analyze modern art the way an American institution could. In the 21st century, the art world at large has caught up, and modernism has carried the day. MoMA can no longer easily behave like a private club when millions of people bang on its door. Contemporary art itself has joined the mainstream, its controversies often nothing more than a faux titillation. Art now does not often invoke bold new worlds; it can’t often claim to represent something radically new. That’s what’s probably most troubling to people: MoMA may be an expression of a larger, moneyed malaise. It may be an all too true reflection of what we’ve become.
The museum certainly should not retire gracefully into its pretty white shell—not without first engaging in a steely round of self-examination. Some moves seem obvious. It should organize its special events in another way and try to make the atrium one of the strongest sculptural spaces in the world. It continues to have smart and talented curators, like Galassi and John Elderfield, but it must take pains to develop a robust curatorial culture that, in particular, can assert a powerful vision about contemporary art. Vision—not reportage, not survey, not coronation. The museum must provide some shape, rightly or wrongly, to the complex morass of art beyond its doors.
When it was founded, MoMA considered holding on to works of art for only a few years and then passing them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In that way it hoped to remain forever fresh. Today, the weight of its collection is enormous. Perhaps it’s inevitable that MoMA will subside into being a museum. Perhaps that’s not even bad, but a useful signal that what we call the modern and postmodern periods are retiring into history. If the art world remains impatient with MoMA’s treatment of art, perhaps it should consider alternatives. There are people today as wealthy as the Rockefellers were when they helped start MoMA. There are curators as eager to develop the new as Alfred H. Barr Jr. was in the thirties. Is there the cultural will? Let someone bold found a new museum for the 21st century.