I was passing through the 5th Avenue E/M subway station the other day when some of the signage caught my attention. My project has attuned me to museum names, especially ones that aren’t on my list. So I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of a map directing me to the American Craft Museum.
For a moment I was worried. A new museum? On the same block as MoMA? That I don’t know about?
Then I was confused. I knew full well that the American Craft Museum morphed into the Museum of Arts and Design and decamped for Columbus Circle years ago. What gives?
It turns out, I wasn’t looking at an ad, but a piece of subway art. The New York City subway system is in terrible disrepair, but over the years the Metropolitan Transit Authority has commissioned some really terrific art to entertain passengers during their interminable waits for unreliable service.
For the Fifth Avenue/53rd Street station, back in 2000 designers Drenttel Doyle and Partners decided that rather than art per se, they’d turn the station platform into a guide to all the great art in the neighborhood.
In hindsight, that wasn’t so smart, or at least not so prescient. The “ArtStop” spotlights six nearby institutions on a series of 73 lemon-yellow, porcelain enamel panels.
Eighteen years later, only a single one of the six, the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is still there. Let’s run down the list:
- American Craft Museum: Transformed into Museum of Arts and Design, and moved north to 59th Street.
- New York Public Library Donnell Library Center: There’s still a branch library there; in fact a rather spiffy one in a brand new building. But it’s no longer named, nor is it especially arty. The original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals, which the ArtStop installation specifically calls out, now reside at the 42nd Street, main branch of the NYPL. (They were my favorite thing there, in fact.)
- Museum of American Folk Art: Oy, it wasn’t even moved into its building yet (“Coming to 53rd Street soon”) in 2000, and already it’s gone, to much smaller quarters near Lincoln Center.
Museum of Television and Radio: Its building even resembles an old fashioned radio. Nowadays it’s the Paley Center for Media. It puts on good events, and has a library of old TV shows visitors can watch. But no museum there for a long time now.
- MoMA: Still there, and what’s more currently building an expansion into the old (not very old!) American Folk Art Museum space.
- Municipal Art Society: moved to new offices some years back and no longer has public exhibition space.
A Museum or a Memorial?
At the ArtStop, each institution gets at least one full panel highlighting its mission statement and some of its notable art or attractions.
At first I found it funny, but on further reflection I find it a little sad, too. Eighteen years is kind of a long time, especially in this ever-changing city. But it’s not that long a time, and museums are supposed to endure against the vicissitudes of real estate and fashion. The MTA should probably decommission the ArtStop at this point, and think twice about embedding permanent attraction guides on station walls.
That said, the other notably museum-influenced subway art installation I can think of is the 81st Street B/C train station near the American Museum of Natural History. That station features a fantastic riot of mosaic and relief fossils, reefs, birds, beasts, and bugs. I expect it will continue to be relevant for as long as the city stands, but who knows? Maybe someday there’ll be condos there, and the mosaics will be all that remain to remind us of the natural wonders once found aboveground.