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'Exploded' MoMA meets the press

Officials of the expanded Museum of Modern Art exult to an international gathering before the reopening.

November 19, 2004|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — "It's about the art too," one board member finally reminded the crowd during all the gloating over Yoshio Taniguchi's redesigned Museum of Modern Art and the $858-million fundraising campaign that made it possible.

They were a floor above some of the most stirring Picassos, Matisses and Van Goghs anywhere, not to mention the room of Pollocks a flight lower, or the old Rockefeller garden, at street level, with its family of sculptures. But it was easy to lose sight of the art during the festivities leading up to Saturday's long-awaited reopening of the best-known modern art museum in the world, now expanded and rethought, "exploded ... open to the city," as the director, Glenn D. Lowry, put it.

On the day the international press came calling, he found himself explaining, more than any work in the galleries, the new $20 entry fee. Nearby, some of his name-on-the-wall donors were recounting the can-you-top-this process that got the place built, with one billionaire exulting over how he might at last get his enormous Serras out of storage. Then there was the soft-spoken Japanese architect himself, teasing all those people taking his picture that he didn't understand what was so special about his "box, skylights and a garden."

Yet even as workers hurried to finish the garden wall, there was time also to share memories that had nothing to do with the hoopla of the moment -- recollections of long-ago first visits to the 75-year-old museum that has given generations a connection to Modern art through Monet's "Water Lillies" or Giacometti's skeletal "Man Pointing" or even the green-and-black helicopter now looming over a stairway.

For the board member who commented that "it's about the art too," Robert B. Menschel, it was a Henri Cartier-Bresson photo -- of a boy and girl in a Paris cafe -- that got to him the first time he visited MoMA. In 1947, he was a student at Bronx High School of Science, and framed copies of such vintage photos were on the walls of the museum cafeteria so you could rent them, for $10 to $20, for six months. Later, as Menschel rose through the ranks at Goldman Sachs, he was able to buy originals of such works, and now he has a photo gallery in his name.

In 1996, when the board started talking about expansion and someone suggested a $150-million project, he recalled, "I said it was beneath the dignity of the museum, $150 million."

The board chairman, cosmetics kingpin Ronald Lauder, said that by the end of that meeting the question was, "Could we raise $300 million?" After that, he quipped, "it seems like every time I missed a meeting, they raised it by $100 million."

In remarks to the crowd, Lauder recalled the inauspicious origins of the museum conceived by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and two of her female friends. It opened days after the 1929 stock market crash, on the 12th floor of an office building at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. But it cost nothing to see the exhibit, "Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh," and the first month, 47,000 people came to the 3,800 square feet of gallery space, "women ... taking their reluctant husbands," as Lauder described it.

Within three years the museum had moved up to John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s five-story brick townhouse on West 53rd Street, and by 1939 that had been demolished for a custom-made home, a marble-and-glass International Style box designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone.

Lauder said he made his first visit when he was 15 and also a student at Bronx Science, coming alone one Saturday in 1959, and gazed upon "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," thus experiencing the impact of seeing art in person, the realization that "Picasso with his own hand had done it."

This week, his favorite painting still was drawing the second-largest cluster of TV cameras, after Van Gogh's "The Starry Night." And the first museum building -- the 1939 Goodwin-Stone box -- is now named for Lauder and his wife.

He will not say exactly how much he and others chipped in to earn such "naming opportunities." But the campaign has amazed veteran philanthropists such as Los Angeles' Eli Broad, a recent addition to the MoMA board. During the same time he was carrying the brunt of expanding the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, amid recession and post-9/11 qualms, here they have raised $725 million in gifts and pledges toward their $858-million goal. "You had 50 trustees giving $5 million or more, some giving up to $50 million," said Broad, whose first memory of MoMA is of a Warhol retrospective that "changed my view" of the Pop artist.

But the generous checks apparently do not buy you immortality in all circles. Minutes after Lauder gave his public remarks, a young TV woman asked him, "Your name please?" And what did he do for the museum?

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