As the No. 7 train pulls into the 33rd Street station, commuters can’t miss the electric-blue building sitting amid the redbrick factories on Queens Boulevard. It’s not Shea Stadium—that’s a few more subway stations away—but the next stop for the Museum of Modern Art, which opens in Queens on the 29th of this month.
“How do I get there?” was museum director Glenn Lowry’s reaction when he was told about the building in 1998. Queens may have its fair share of important art institutions—Socrates Sculpture Park, the Isamu Noguchi Museum, the Museum of the Moving Image, the Queens Museum, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center—but it is easy to imagine Lowry’s initial confusion about the Swingline Stapler factory. It was a New York landmark, with a stapler-shaped neon sign flashing “Easy Loading” for more than 30 years. The plant, however, was moving to Mexico, and the building was available.
As part of the inaugural exhibition “To Be Looked At,” Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignonare among the first works to be seen on the walls of MoMA QNS, as the site is now called (pronounced “Q-N-S”). In addition, MoMA QNS opens with two other shows: “Tempo,” a global look at ways in which contemporary artists are addressing time, organized by adjunct curator of painting and sculpture Paulo Herkenhoff, and “AUTObodies: speed, sport and transport,” featuring five classic cars from the museum’s design collection, organized by associate design curator Peter Reed. To get Pinin Farina’s racy red 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT and a 1990 Ferrari Formula One Racing Car 64 ½, among other autos, to Queens, the museum had to hire a classic-car handler.
The entire collection, in fact, is in the process of being trucked across the Queensborough Bridge. Since the beginning of March and continuing through the end of August, MoMA has been moving every work from its main building on 53rd Street: 27,000 architectural drawings and design objects, 43,000 prints and illustrated books, 21,000 photographs, 6,200 drawings, 550 paintings, and 450 sculptures.
From the corner of 33rd Street and Queens Boulevard, it’s hard to guess that the squat two-story building could hold such treasures. But inside its glass doors, a thrilling museum space unfolds, with soaring ceilings and a dramatic crisscross of concrete ramps that lead visitors to its second-floor galleries. If the bright blue facade screams “Let’s Go Mets,” the interior, transformed by Los Angeles–based architect Michael Maltzan, recalls the sleek modernist curves of the Eero Saarinen–designed TWA terminal at JFK. The galleries, however, are merely temporary. The site will be used for public exhibitions for only three years, until MoMA’s $650 million, 630,000-square-foot new building in Manhattan is completed in 2005. Then the Swingline factory will revert to a state-of-the-art study and storage facility for MoMA, warehousing artworks and archives, as well as providing space for conservation and visiting scholars.
For years MoMA had wanted to find a storage facility for its vast holdings. The collection, having more than doubled since 1970, had outgrown the main building, and works were scattered among 12 warehouses in the greater New York area. (The museum does not disclose these locations for security reasons.) In 1996, MoMA began its search for a suitable storage facility. Two years later, it found one—the Swingline Stapler factory—which had room to spare.
“It was perfect,” recalls William Maloney, a project director who oversees MoMA’s real-estate issues. “Large bays, great ceiling heights, and two loading docks, one on each side of the building.” He had looked at more than 150 buildings before finding the Swingline factory. (In a nice historical footnote, Swingline founder Jack Linsky was a major art collector who in 1982 donated works estimated to value $90 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) At the time, the top floor was filled with massive coils of wire and the lower level was still churning out boxes of staples, but Maloney looked beyond the clutter. He saw 160,000 square feet of space with few windows (an asset for a storage warehouse), loading on both levels (thanks to the sharp grade of Queens Boulevard), and proximity to a subway station (eliminating the need for shuttle buses to get MoMA employees across the river).
“We made our decision in a nanosecond,” says Lowry. “We bought it even though we were only looking for 50,000 to 60,000 square feet.” The museum acquired the plant for $5 million in 1999. The architecture firm Cooper, Robertson, and Partners, which had served as construction consultants for MoMA since 1996, was soon hired to design the renovation. Because of the potential for business development created by one of Manhattan’s major tourist attractions moving to the borough of Queens, Governor George E. Pataki allocated $5 million to MoMA for the project in November 2000. Swingline solved more than storage problems for MoMA. “Once we understood the duration of construction on 53rd Street, it became apparent that we were going to have to find a location for temporary exhibitions,” says Lowry. It would be impossible, he notes, to retain staff and provide administrative continuity if the museum simply shut down for the period. A committee led by Maloney and Lowry scoured office buildings in Manhattan. But as the architects were completing the building in Queens, a light bulb went on. “We realized that we were already building a space up to museum standards in Long Island City,” Lowry explains, “and it was just minutes from Manhattan.” (By then, P.S.1, which is two stops on the No. 7 train from MoMA QNS, had been affiliated with MoMA for over two years, so even the most Manhattan-centric staff members had become more accustomed to crossing the river.) Given the original plan to convert the building into a state-of-the-art study facility, the renovation already called for installing a vapor barrier (a substratum of material that impedes moisture and humidity) on the facade of the building, interior climate controls, and a full security system, making it suitable not only for storage but for exhibitions as well. Conveniently, it had an additional 50,000 square feet that could be converted into galleries. MoMA brought in Maltzan to design the entrance area and public spaces in January 2000.
In total, the renovation of the Swingline factory cost the museum close to $30 million. Transporting the artworks, as well as the office furniture, files, and supplies, cost another $20 million. And the museum has still had to rent additional office space in Queens and Manhattan. “But, if you factor in the tens of millions of dollars we were saving by not having to lease another exhibition space, it makes a lot of sense,” says Lowry. The museum is ahead of schedule on its capital campaign, having reached $520 million of the needed $650 million announced in November 1998. The board recently voted to increase that goal to $800 million.
Moving an entire museum—in two directions, since the collection will return to Manhattan—became especially difficult after September 11. “Insurance costs rose dramatically,” says Jennifer Russell, MoMA’s director of collections, who keeps a schedule accounting for every movement of each piece of art. Russell also encountered another unanticipated expense: freight limitations. Insurance companies keep a ceiling on the value of the contents of every truck, so many of the most valuable works in the collect
ion have had to be moved individually, one truck at a time. “Some days, the trucks go back and forth three or four times,” says Russell, “so you have to pray there’s no traffic jam on the 59th Street Bridge.” Then, there are works that present their own set of problems, such as Salvador Dalí’s polyurethaned loaf of bread, which had to be packed so the gases that escape from its coating would not harm other artworks.
Peter Omlor, manager of art handling and preparation at MoMA since 1989, says moving a collection is almost ordinary. With his staff of ten full-time preparators, joined by 12 part-time employees, Omlor says, “it’s the same job, the same practice we use for an outgoing loan; the only difference is the deadlines.” Departments have had to be fully dismantled and moved each week on a very tight schedule since March. Even so, he admits that this move is special. “It’s extraordinary, if you think about it. How many times in a lifetime does one have the opportunity to move the entire collection of the Museum of Modern Art?” he says. Then, reviewing the many works—by Dalí, Matisse, Elizabeth Murray, Piet Mondrian—that had been in storage racks for decades and were noticed anew in the move, he adds, “How many times in a lifetime does anyone even get the chance to see the entire collection of the Museum of Modern Art?”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.