A Comparative Discussion of Modern Art Museums
The Modern Museum of Art (MoMA) in New York City and Tate Modern in London have a number of major features in common that help to define the visitor’s experience. Perhaps most importantly, both are considered among the most important collections in the world and both institutions are highly regarded not just for their conservation of art but for the usability of their facilities and the considerable educational, informational, cultural and recreational resources contained there within. What strikes one as most compelling about both collections is that they trace their respective origins to the efforts of extremely wealthy philanthropists but that each offers a collection rife with examples of resistance, protest and rejection of established values. Indeed, this is perhaps the most unifying condition defining modern art in evidence at both sites.
Founded and overseen by members of the Rockafeller family, the Modern Museum of Art would nonetheless become the home to many of the late 19th and early 20th century’s most challenging works, including examples by Van Gogh, Picasso and Warhol. These various instances of surrealism, cubism and pop art would become part of the permanent collection, displaying the various ways that modern art has been used to dismantle prior cultural expectations of that which can be defined as art. Certainly, the whimsical and frequently breathtaking ways of framing certain exhibitions would underscore this concept, right down to the unique redesign of the building by Yoshio Taniguchi in 1997.
Interestingly, architectural approach and building design are perhaps the features that most distinguish the two buildings from one another. Whereas the redesign by Taniguchi would render the museum a stark example of contemporary architectural invention, the most recent redesign of the Tate Modern offers a very different interpretation of modernism. Here, the most recent remodeling which occurred across the 2000s would be aimed at exemplified the modernist concept of repurposing. The museum’s industrial appearance and its factory facade underscore the concept of adaptive architecture, itself a principle of modern art that reflects its origins in the turn to the 20th century.
To this point, the collection at the Tate begins with work from the year 1900 and extends to the present day. However, this collection is framed by the Tate’s much larger context. Such is to say that Tate is distinct from the MoMA, most particularly because the Modern museum is part of the much larger Tate network of museums. Therefore, its collection casts a much broader historical net. According to its website, “Tate holds the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art.” Because Tate Modern is part of this larger collection, its work is contextualized along something of a continuum. That the modern museum itself opened in 1897 is indicative of the sheer age of the collection relative to that housed by the MoMA from its 1929 inception.
The Tate houses such famous works as Monet’s expressionism, the abstract expressionism of Matisse and the photographic work of figures like Eugene Atget. The arrangement of the museum in relative chronological order, an approach adopted only in the most recent years, also differentiates Tate from the MoMA. The MoMA instead divides its collection according to media, allowing visitors to become absorbed in the different but often concurrent histories of painting, photography, sculpture, installations and the whole host of increasingly varied channels used for artistic expression.
An important commonality between the museums is their highly variable use of space within. One of the most important onsite efforts for the MoMA, for instance, is its focus on conservation. To this end, “the Department of Conservation is responsible for the preservation of The Museum of Modern Art’s collection. The department was established in 1958 in response to a fire at the Museum and was initially devoted to painting conservation. Since then, the department has grown to include staff and facilities dedicated to preserving works on paper, sculpture and objects, photography, and time-based media.” (MOMA, p. 1)
The Tate museum describes a similar prioritization. Likewise, both surround their permanent collections with traveling exhibits on loan from other museums. Additionally, the two museums offer a wide array of educational resources from student courses, to children’s programs to regular open workshops features a host of special guests and speakers.
Additionally, each museum balances these local interests with facilities that appeal to tourists and other recreational visitors. With its botanical garden, the Tate provides an idyllic setting for cocktails, as does The Modern, a restaurant housed within the MoMA.
Such features demonstrate the areas where an effective museum of modern and contemporary art must expand into in order to serve its functions not just as a curator of great works, but also as a place where these works can be enjoyed, learned from and ultimately where they can inspire others to the same creative heights.
Modern Museum of Art. (2013). Homepage. Moma.org.
Tate Modern (2013). Homepage. http://www.tate.org.uk.
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