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Dome Improvement—What’s an Art Museum Doing in Rockaway Beach?

MoMA PS1’s VW Dome 2 is the latest in a wave of museum outposts that are humble, nimble, and temporary, offering free admission—and much more than art

If there’s a barrier to your getting into one of the edgiest dinners in the New York art world this weekend, it won’t be the admission. But it might be the subway.

This Is Not a Private Party” is the insistent, unironic name of the communal potluck dinner that will be held on Saturday at the VW Dome 2, MoMA PS1’s newest outpost in Queens.

The white geodesic structure, a smaller version of its older sibling in Long Island City, popped up two weeks ago at Beach 94th Street in the Rockaways, right across Shorefront Parkway from the beach, or what’s left of it. In between is the skeleton of the boardwalk—one of many amenities, including the subway, that have yet to be repaired since superstorm Sandy walloped the peninsula last fall.

MoMA PS1’s VW Dome 2 in Rockaway Beach, 2013. PHOTO: CHARLES ROUSSEL / COURTESY MOMA PS1.

The dinner is a project of the Rockaway Rescue Alliance, a group working to establish a permanent pay-as-you-can Relief Restaurant. They’re among the partners Klaus Biesenbach, the MoMA PS1 director who conceived of the Dome (and owns a second home nearby), has invited to help program it, along with the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, and the Queens Museum. Through May 18, the Dome will offer performance, dance, yoga, gardening classes, instruction in art and ecology, a screening of a film set in the neighborhood for the Tribeca Film Festival, a showcase for suggestions on sustainable design, and more.

With exactly two conventional artworks on view right now—The Way Things Go (1987), the hilarious Fischli/Weiss film of actions and reactions, and The Future Iz Bigger Than History (2012), a Terence Koh installation of eggshells in a vitrine—the Dome is conceived less as exhibition space than as form of social practice.

A boy looks at Terence Koh’s The Future Iz Bigger Than Historyat MoMA PS1’s VW Dome 2 in Rockaway Beach, 2013. PHOTO: CHARLES ROUSSEL / COURTESY MOMA PS1.

“One goal is literally that it should be in service to the community,” says Biesenbach. “It shouldn’t reduce its profile to a pure art space.”

Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl came to the Dome’s inauguration on Good Friday with a team including an art therapist, education director, community organizer, director of partnerships, social-media specialist, and manager of school partnerships, who were there not only to see Patti Smith sing but to begin plotting programs and outreach.

Patti Smith performs at MoMA PS1’s VW Dome 2 in Rockaway Beach, 2013. PHOTO: CHARLES ROUSSEL / COURTESY MOMA PS1.

“People are beginning to understand that art can and should intervene,” says Finkelpearl, whose new book is What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation.

On Saturday at the Dome, Queens Museum staff will provide a mobile reading room, a photo booth, and a Drop-In Family Workshop for art-making. The team will help participants create cities of their own imagining as they reflect on questions like “What is a city? What goes on there? How does it work?”

The VW Dome 2 is another example of the ways that even in a time of austerity, U.S. art museums are continuing to expand beyond their walls. Globally, it’s less in the form of ambitious mega-projects like the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (now scheduled for completion in 2017) and more through networks and networking, like the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, whose next focus is Latin America, and the Met’s recent accord with India.

At home, the trend is toward creating spaces that are nimble, inclusive, and temporary or virtual. The Dome opened as the Guggenheim BMW Lab, another community center/event space that appeared in New York, Berlin, and Mumbai, enhanced its online presence with a virtual “game” designed to spark conversations about privacy and public space. And the Queens Museum, which is opening its newly expanded flagship in Flushing Meadows Park next fall, has an extension of sorts in the Queens neighborhood of Corona—in the form of Immigrant Movement International, Tania Bruguera’s “artist-initiated sociopolitical movement” that offers legal workshops, language classes, and more. Bruguera’s “Arte Útil Lab,” installed at the Queens Museum through June 2, looks at various ways art can address social problems. It travels to the Netherlands this fall in the form of a Museum of Arte Útil that will take over Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum.

BMW Guggenheim Lab, Architect’s model, New York City site, discussion setting. PHOTO: COURTESY ATELIER BOW-WOW.

Dome 2 comes down right as Biesenbach launches the rest of the VW-sponsored project it’s part of: “EXPO 1: New York,” a “festival-as-institution” opening May 12 and running all summer. EXPO 1 features several art exhibitions, pieces of an Icelandic glacier (brought to New York in a deep-freezer container), an amphitheater-like structure housing a school of “speculations on the future,” a MoMA PS1 gallery transformed into a bio-habitat like pond, an experimental roof garden, a commune-like colony in the courtyard where students and teachers can live, and a structure at MoMA to make weather a “participatory experience,” among many, many other things.

Last week the Center for the Future of Museums, a part of the American Alliance of Museums, released TrendsWatch 2013, its second report examining ways that museums do and can respond to transformations in society. One major change is in philanthropy: in an era when the socially conscious millennial audience is moving into position as patrons, the report says, supporters will demand more bang for their fundraising buck. It also urges museums to stay on the cutting edge of technology, pushing their way out of the white-cube sensibility with 3-D printing, online learning, smart buildings, interactive displays, and increased engagement in public discussion about themes like urbanism and ecology.

These new trends present new challenges. The criteria for judging social practice—as art? as activism?—remain elusive, in the art world as well as local communities where some have accused well-meaning museum arrivals of being gentrifiers or interlopers.

The role of an art venue like the Dome as a transformational social space—whether people come for the art, the wi-fi, or the facilities—cannot be quantified, Biesenbach stresses. “Art is an excuse to see people and start talking,” he says.

Finkelpearl puts it another way. “We can’t deliver all the sand out of the streets,” he says. “We need some fun out there. That we can definitely deliver.”

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