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48. Because We Fight Over Cultural Spaces As If They Were Bosnia

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The original (left); the new version (right)   

The Museum of Arts and Design calls itself MAD, and it certainly caused a furor when it gutted Edward Durell Stone’s “lollipop” building on Columbus Circle to create its new home this year. What’s odd is that it was rarely the A that provoked the anger, only the D of the M. New Yorkers care about art, of course, but they generally care more about real estate, and in such matters the latter often comes to stand for the former. What goes into our cultural buildings—what exhibition, what concert—may be fun to argue about, but it rarely results in more than a skirmish. For the war, you need to talk about moving, expanding, renovating, renaming. No show running at the Gerald Schoenfeld or Bernard B. Jacobs or Samuel J. Friedman theaters on Broadway—not even Brooklyn the Musical—elicited as much outrage as did the rechristening of those theaters (from the Plymouth, Royale, and Biltmore) in honor of two landlords and a publicist. Similar indignation greets revampings of the Guggenheim, serial attempted expansions of the Whitney, anything City Opera suggests about moving from or remaining in its Lincoln Center space. Criticism of Lorin Maazel ebbs and flows, but the fight over fixing Avery Fisher Hall is eternal.

It isn’t just about historic preservation; it’s about allowable change. To New Yorkers, the location and deployment of the treasures are foundational questions. If we brawl over theaters and museums as if they were our homelands, that’s because in a way they are. Largely rootless ourselves—and more so now, thanks to a financial disaster that has made us doubt the value of our actual homes—we invest our cultural institutions with a kind of sanctity and authority that others invest in, say, Montenegro. And like some Eastern Europeans of recent vintage, we are hair-trigger happy to fight over particular interpretations of boundary and mission. You can follow the war daily on snarky Websites, but this isn’t just an echo-chamber artifact of too many culturati in too small a room. There is a different coefficient of involvedness at work. In a city that has seen too many of its buildings come down, that suspects its soul is buried in the memory of the old Penn Station or in the World Trade Center hole or in the fifth-floor walk-up we lived in after college that is now a fluorescent Duane Reade, the architecture of our engagement with the eternal—with art—is a profound kind of politics. About our concert halls, we are all patriots.


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