Beyond the White Wall

Two specialists working on major NYC museum projects discuss the thrills and challenges of creating spaces for art.
Lana Hum and Kulapat Yantrasast at MoMA
Lana Hum and Kulapat Yantrasast at MoMA

Kulapat Yantrasast sees himself as a matchmaker between art and people. “I look at buildings as characters,” he says. “If that building is a person: Do I like that person? Is it too egoistic? Is it too much facade with no real soul?”

As an architect and creative director at wHY in Los Angeles, Yantrasast lets this philosophy guide his projects: it may be why so many galleries and museums have chosen to work with him. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently announced that Yantrasast will design a major renovation of its Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, dedicated to Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, beginning in late 2020. On the occasion of a recent visit to New York, Yantrasast met with Lana Hum, MoMA’s director of Exhibition Design and Production, who is deeply immersed in the installation of new gallery spaces and the integration of existing spaces for an expanded MoMA opening this October. Like Yantrasast, she wants to see “the soul of the building come through each and every time you transform the space.” In the conversation below, the two shared the particular thrills and challenges of creating spaces for art and profound experiences for visitors.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Lana Hum: I’m Lana Hum and I’m the director of Exhibition Design and Production [at MoMA].

Kulapat Yantrasast: And I’m Kulapat Yantrasast, architect and creative director at wHY, based in New York and Los Angeles.

LH: I feel really happy and grateful to meet you because I know about your work and I immediately had all these questions that I wanted to ask you.

KY: I love that. Thank you very much.

LH: I know you’ve made beautiful spaces for art. And I’m interested in talking to someone who makes permanent spaces, such as museum environments, because when my team is designing exhibition spaces, we’re always considering the envelope—the building itself. You want the soul of the building to come through each and every time you transform the space. So, as someone who creates the initial space as an invitation for all these other things to happen in it, how do you think about that?

KY: I think a lot about this. And I always see myself almost like a matchmaker between art and people.

LH: It’s interesting—I feel more like a marriage counselor!

wHY’s rendering of the African section of the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
wHY’s rendering of the African section of the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

KY: For me, I look at buildings as characters. So let’s say you have a new building being built; I would look at that building as if that building is a person: Do I like that person? Is it too egoistic? Is it too much about facade with no real soul? It’s the same thing with a museum. But you’re also dealing with the problem of museum as a temple of culture and art. Therefore, there’s already a sense of intimidation before people come in.

There’s also a sense of wanting to maximize walls, so often there’s not a lot of windows. MoMA is actually a very rare exception to that because you do have windows. But most museums, you don’t even know what’s going on inside—that’s a big problem. So, when you translate that from the exterior to interior, how can wholesome qualities—generosity, confidence, surprise, even humor—be part of that museum experience?

When you have a host who’s generous, that lets you wander around to look at the work on your own, you feel, “Well, I can create my own moment.” And I think most visitors like that.

LH: What I’ve found challenging in making these good spaces that are inviting to everyone is that at MoMA—and other museums deal with this—we have a huge volume of visitors that come every year. But you still want to create those special moments that people feel are made just for them. So that even though they’re in the middle of a gallery that might have 400 people, in a city that has 10 million people, they’re having this really personal experience. That’s a particular challenge because there are things that we have to worry about, like art safety. I’m curious, how do you navigate those tensions?

KY: If you think of a museum experience like a dance, there are moments that are more high-energy and focused and there are more relaxed moments. It makes a visit last longer because then people are not exhausted with so many stimulations all the time. I think it’s necessary so that people also feel like they have moments to kind of reflect back.

Kulapat Yantrasast
Kulapat Yantrasast

LH: Would you tell us about your commission at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York?

KY: We were selected to work with the Met Museum to re-conceive the Rockefeller Wing, which is the Africa, Oceania, and Americas material. It’s altogether 40,000 square feet on one floor. Nelson Rockefeller tried to integrate that material in the 1930s and the ’40s, but he was not successful because at the time the Met didn’t see that art as belonging in the museum. He ended up building his own museum on 54th Street called the Museum of Primitive Art. He was influenced by René d’Harnoncourt and therefore had a love for Mexican art, so there’s a very personal passion to that particular material. When the work did go to the Met, he was concerned about what would happen in the future if the leadership said, “This material should not be here.” So, the work has always been isolated, conceptually and operationally, from the rest of the museum.

LH: And spatially? Do they all have their own spaces?

KY: Yes. Everything is planned so that they have their own conservators, art storage, curators. That was the beginning point for us: How do we let the collections really speak for themselves and how do we create a sense of unity? There’s a grandeur of civilization we want to celebrate. Africa is Africa, which actually has nothing to do with the Americas at all, but it gets lumped into the same bucket because they’re all “exotic.” Let’s have a sense of the Renaissance, of the Enlightenment, talk about not only the exotic but the sophistications and evolutions of cultures and science and other things that are part of that civilization. Within Africa there are about 200 nations. How do you deal with all those nations? That’s the experience that we’re working on. We want to make sure that the recognition of the different cultures and time is felt in the exhibition, but then also make sure that the masterpieces are celebrated.

LH: And there’s still a history of displayed language that you’ll be encountering.

KY: Exactly. Two opposite cases, both in Paris, that you might have seen of the same materials is the Musée du quai Branly and a small, little pavilion in the Louvre called the Pavillon des Sessions. The Pavillon is basically a little showcase that highlights masterpieces so that people that go to the Louvre, if they stumble into this 6,000-square-foot gallery, know, “Oh, there’s another museum for African materials to go to.” The quai Branly is trying to be exotic, colorful, and then the Pavillon des Sessions looks like a very high-end antique. It’s interesting, the spectrum of expectations when you see that material.

Kulapat Yantrasast and Lana Hum
Kulapat Yantrasast and Lana Hum

LH: So, how do you begin to develop that in your thinking into an architectural vocabulary?

KY: The context is quite important for the space and working with curators. At the Met, it’s really object-oriented or collection-oriented. We start with different groupings and then we try to define a sense of parameters, the implications of one nation to another. [Robert] Goldwater, who was the curator that helped Nelson Rockefeller build the collection, had an amazing amount of photographs and sketches. How can these photographs start to talk about that context? So, you know, in a way, if you look at the extremes, our design might be in the middle, or maybe a little bit more toward the Louvre, in the sense that we try not to use too much color. Color gets dated very quickly and different people have different reactions to the same color. So, we use textiles for color, because there’s a big textile collection. In each of the nations, there’s always a back wall, a glass case with a big textile. You see color through the textile and then you can change the textile every three months or so. And we try to use natural material—a variety of woodwork and stones—to create a sense of plinth and platform around it.

What about you? You have a big challenge here.

LH: I do and I have excellent partners in that challenge, which always makes it a little less daunting. I have the opposite problem, in that I’m working with a lot of familiar objects, and it’s more about making them feel new again, giving them other partners to play around with. These are objects that are beloved by many. That’s the challenge. I’m working with the curators to reinstall the Taniguchi galleries plus the new spaces. And helping them craft this vision of these linked galleries that are not quite thematic but have their own story to tell. That’s one piece of it. The other piece of it is getting to know this whole new building that’s designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and seeing how to work from a higher conceptual level down to all the practical things.

wHY’s rendering of the planned regional galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
wHY’s rendering of the planned regional galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

KY: Have you worked with a project like that before, when you worked with an architect to renovate and then to reinstall the galleries?

LH: Not in this capacity, but I worked at the Whitney [Museum of American Art] when they renovated the Breuer Building, which used to be offices, into the collection galleries. What I loved about the Breuer Building was that, even though it has a very strong personality—this brutalist building that really announced itself—it did have this very flexible ceiling. I loved it, as a builder and someone who has to make spaces, but it is very strong.

KY: With institutions like MoMA and the Met, you feel responsible because people will come here and think, “This is it, this is the standard.”

LH: I’m not taking cues from just one person’s vision. You’re really taking cues from this incredible conversation that’s happening across all these different thinkers about our collections. That’s been fascinating.