Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Museum for African Art Finds Its Place

By The New York Times
The Museum for African Art, which has had a nomadic existence since it opened in 1984, will finally gain a permanent home in a soaring new building designed by Robert A. M. Stern, on Fifth Avenue between 109th and 110th Streets.

Models and renderings of the new structure, which will face the northeast corner of Central Park, were unveiled at a news conference at the Guggenheim Museum, some 20 blocks south of the site.

Presiding over the event, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hailed the project as “the first new construction of a museum on Museum Mile since the great Guggenheim opened in 1959.”

With 90,000 square feet, including 16,000 square feet of exhibition space, the building will give the Museum for African Art a long-coveted base, said Elsie McCabe, the institution’s president. Officials hope to break ground in the spring of 2008 and complete construction by the end of 2009.

The estimated cost is $80 million, of which $49 million has been raised, including $12 million from the city.

A tower of 115 luxury condominiums will be built above the museum, under a partnership between the museum and two developers, Brickman and Sidney Fetner Associates. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the structure will be a shimmering glass wall made up of what Mr. Stern’s firm calls “dancing mullions,” after the slender vertical members that form the division between window units

At the museum’s center will be a great hall entered from Fifth Avenue, with the mullions on the left and a soaring wall on the right, made of richly colored etimoe wood from Ghana, that curves upward to form the ceiling.

The wall “suggests, if you look at it, the woven shapes of baskets and so forth — and weaving is so much a part of African art,” Mr. Stern said in an interview. “It’s not a literal interpretation. It’s an abstract one.”

At the rear, a cylindrical enclosure sheathed in perforated copper that Mr. Stern likened to a drum will house a staircase. Mr. Stern, who is dean of the Yale School of Architecture, called it a “21st-century version” of the concrete stairwell enclosures at Louis I. Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery, considered a Modernist masterpiece.

The New York firm SCLE Architects will work with Mr. Stern on the project.

He noted that his other works of public architecture — the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.; the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, an ornithology center in Jamestown, N.Y.; and a planned American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, Pa. — have revolved to some extent around a personality.

“This, like the Rockwell, is a major art museum, but it’s not built around a person, but around a continent,” Mr. Stern said. “It takes Africa out of the museums of natural history where it sometimes is — and also out of museums of the modern art.” He noted that over the last century, African masks and figures have sometimes been displayed as if their function were to inspire the Cubism of Braque or Picasso.

Founded as the Center for African Art in 1984 by Susan Mullin Vogel, now a professor of art history at Columbia University, the museum gained broad recognition for its innovative conceptual approaches to exhibiting African art.

It occupied two adjacent town houses on East 68th Street before moving to rented quarters in SoHo in 1993. Around 2000, Ms. McCabe arranged a partnership with Edison Schools, the for-profit education company, to buy a parcel on Fifth Avenue from a housing developer. (She said the site had once housed a low-rise commercial building.)

Plans called for Edison to build a school and a corporate headquarters on the site while providing space for the museum to build a structure for itself. In 2001 the company’s stock price nose-dived, and it abandoned the project in 2002, shortly after the museum had moved to a temporary location in Long Island City, Queens.

With a loan from the Community Preservation Corporation, the museum secured the land from Edison by 2003. Then, with help from two of its trustees — John L. Tishman of the Tishman Realty and Construction Corporation and Jonathan D. Green of the Rockefeller Group Development Corporation — the museum arranged a partnership with the two developers, Brickman and Sidney Fetner.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation recently arranged the sale of four other parcels to the partnership, clearing the way for the work to begin.

Mr. Stern said the challenge was to design a museum with “a strong civic public identity within the larger framework of a commercial apartment house — and at the same time, to make a building that is glassy and open, but not a knee-jerk glass block.”

Ms. McCabe said: “We knew if anybody could marry us distinctively with a residential building, he could. And God bless him, he did.”

A Harvard-trained lawyer who worked for Mayor David N. Dinkins from 1990 to 1993, Ms. McCabe has led the museum for nine years. She oversees a staff of 18 and an annual budget of roughly $3 million.

The museum has organized about 55 exhibitions, many of them traveling across the United States and so far to 17 other countries. It has published more than 40 books and provided teacher training and curriculums to more than 350 schools.

Although the museum has eschewed collecting in favor of borrowing works from other institutions, it does plan a small permanent exhibition at the new site.

“We’re a small museum that’s populated by zealots,” Ms. McCabe said. “We not only want to introduce children and adults to the beauty of African art, we want to introduce them in a variety of ways to the beauty and the majesty of the people who created it too.”

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