MoMA trustee James Thrall Soby with a serviceman at the Museum’s Servicemen’s Party, fall 1943. James Thrall Soby papers. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

On Museums and Civic Responsibility

Can MoMA be a place that helps to heal this city?
Wendy Woon Jun 12, 2020

When The Museum of Modern closed to the public in June 2019, closure meant preparation and anticipation for new ways of interpreting and exhibiting the collection. It meant a new, more inclusive array of artists, a new welcoming approach, and new spaces for performance art and for visitors to explore their own creativity. The reopening held the promise of the Museum being filled with excited people, most of them tourists.

But now, when the world is on pause due to a fear of the pandemic, the empty museum is just a shell of itself. And the promise of social engagement and public participation seems like something from the past, as we begin to imagine what it will take to bring New Yorkers in particular, given limitations on travel, back to the Museum.

Over the past few months, New Yorkers have experienced isolation, illness, loss of employment, and bereavement. Among those who are working, many are juggling responsibilities for caring, teaching, and working simultaneously, without boundaries. Those living alone may be feeling the chilling effects of social isolation and the loss of human touch.

The recent brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police has catalyzed outrage. It has put into stark relief the longstanding racial inequities of our society, the systems of violence and oppression that privilege white people over Black people and people of color. How does a museum prepare to be a public space for people who have lived through such trauma? How can it be not just a caring space for New Yorkers—while maintaining their safety—but a place that takes a stand and openly invites conversations that may be uncomfortable and provocative, and require a deep commitment to reflection and concrete action?

Expansive museums depend on visitors. It’s clear that it may take years to build back the tourist economy in New York that balances operating budgets. But where should museums invest in the meantime? How might they need to change to survive and be relevant to a wholly changed world?

How does a museum prepare to be a public space for people who have lived through trauma?

From the start, MoMA was a civically minded institution. But opening a report of the War Veteran’s Art Center, pioneered at MoMA from 1944 to 1948, offers a touchstone for how we might serve our city and community now. The Museum introduced a range of initiatives, including helping artists and their work escape war-torn Europe, and hosting soldiers in a canteen in the Sculpture Garden during World War II. But the War Veteran’s Art Center played a more central role in New York City: The program connected MoMA to a larger healthcare network for returning veterans, and to a study about helping them return to productive civilian life. The report, a fascinating read, underscores MoMA’s commitment to participating in the civic life of the city, not only as a cultural provider, but with an experimental approach that underscored the ability of art to help people recover and live productive lives.

Filed with the report were a host of telegrams to Victor D’Amico, then MoMA’s Director of Education, who had overseen this initiative and written the report, which he dedicated to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the Museum’s three women founders, who had recently passed away. They included heartfelt missives from Nelson Rockefeller and others, as well as an eloquent letter from John D. Rockefeller Jr.—who noted that Mrs. Rockefeller would have been greatly pleased with the report, which he called “a tribute to the vision of Mrs. Rockefeller”—and other leaders at the Museum. He continued, “But as significant as all these contributions are, the friendly spirit, and gracious personality which underlay them and which enabled the organization to win the confidence of veterans were, perhaps, the Center’s greatest contribution to the extraordinary rehabilitation service which it rendered.”

Can MoMA be a place that helps to heal this city? Can it reflect upon its own role in inequities and injustices? Can it prioritize engaging with a more inclusive New York audience, be open to hearing their voices and needs, and be willing to make change? I believe so, but it will take serious shifts in thinking about our role and where we invest our limited resources. It will take a shift in values to see that teaching and learning with art is something that artists do as part of their practice, and that New York is a huge pool of diverse creative talent. During the pandemic people have voted with their feet about what is relevant to them: families need activities for teaching and learning, adults see the value in lifelong learning as a way to enrich themselves but also to connect with others.

Another way we can support New York is to invest in communities of local artists, and in artists who are skilled in teaching with and through art. No museum is an island, and we can expand the power of art through a deeper understanding of what New Yorkers need now, and through partnerships with other civic institutions.

At this moment in history, MoMA must pivot from seeing itself as an institution with the greatest modern art collection, to one that uses art in service of humankind by not only fostering deeper experiences with art, but by being a more inclusive cultural force within the city. To be a place of relevance, a museum must be responsive to the changes and needs of the people and communities that make up the place that it occupies. The current pause in tourism may be a perfect opportunity for all of us to re-embrace our commitment to making New York City a more equitable, healthful, and vibrant city.

Wendy Woon is retiring on Monday, June 15, after nearly 15 years leading the Department of Education at MoMA.

Op-Eds present personal reflections on art and culture from staff and members of the broader MoMA community. The opinions shared are those of the author, and are not intended as statements from The Museum of Modern Art.