History Of The Museum Of Modern Art (MoMa)

History Of The Museum Of Modern Art (MoMa)

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The Museum of Modern Art is located in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue on 53rd Street. Otherwise referred to as MoMA, this legendary landmark serves as one of the largest and most influential modern art museums in the world.

The artworks include architecture, contemporary art, illustrations, paintings, photography, and sculptures. In addition to serving as a modern art museum, there is also the MoMA Library. Within, there are over 300,000 books, exhibition catalogs, and periodical titles to be found. Its archives serve as the primary resource when it comes to learning more about the history of contemporary and modern art. It is currently one of the most visited art museums in the world.

How It Began

Before the Museum of Modern Art actually became a physical location, it was conceived by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1929 as an idea. Abby is the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. She, along with her friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, rented six modest quarters for their museum idea in the Heckscher Building. Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, it opened to the public for the first time on November 7, 1929. This came about just days after the devastating Wall Street Crash. At the time, Abby’s desire to start up this museum was heavily opposed by her husband. Because of this, he refused to support his wife and her idea at first.

Conger Goodyear was invited by Abby Rockefeller to become the new museum’s president. Previously, he was the of Buffalo’s Albright Art Gallery. While he was president, Rockefeller served as treasurer. Added to the board of trustees were Paul J. Sachs and Frank Crowninshield. Together, they recruited Alfred H. Barr, Jr. It was he who played a key role in the museum’s expansionism as it brought in displayed paintings of Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh.

It was also Barr who stressed the importance of bringing to the attention of the public great and peculiar art forms. This included film works. From 1935 until 1951, John Hay Whitney served as the first chairman of the museum’s film library. He was also a museum trustee and film producer at the time. Thanks to him and his film curator and founder, Iris Barry, were credited for the success of the film department was so great that it was commended in 1937 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The museum was given an award for its significant work in collecting films for public viewing.

From 1930 until 1968, by Rockefeller’s appointment, Soichi Sunami also served as the museum’s documentary photographer. From 1932 until 1934, then from 1946 until 1954, Philip Johnson served as the director of the Department of Architecture and Design. When this was founded by MoMA in 1932, it was the first museum department in the world that was dedicated to architecture and design. After Johnson was curator Arthur Drexler until 1986.

At first, the rooms of galleries and offices were located on the twelfth floor of the Heckscher Building. It then moved around three more times in the span of ten years. Back in the day, it was considered America’s premier museum that was dedicated strictly to modern art. It was also the first of its kind to host modern European influences as an exhibit.

It was during this time an exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s artwork was put on display on November 4, 1935. Arranged by Barr, this display won huge public approval. The museum’s popularity rating spiked, even more, when word got out about the impressive van Gogh drawings from the Netherlands, as well as the excerpts of his letters.

In 1937, MoMA moved to the offices and basement galleries in the Rockefeller Center’s Time-Life Building. However, not even this location was enough to properly cater to the growing needs of the museum.

Family Ties

As the prestige and popularity of MoMA increased, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. finally got on board as a benefactor. It was he who donated the strip of land along 53rd Street so that the museum could erect its permanent home. It was also he who later became one of the museum’s greatest benefactors through additional donations, plus other gifts.

Designed by the modernist architect, Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, the permanent home of the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to the public for the first time on May 10, 1939. Designed with international flair, the architecture of the museum itself was a prominent display of modern art. There were about six thousand people who visited the museum that day.

In 1939, Nelson Rockefeller, Abby’s son, was elected by the board of trustees to become the museum’s next president. He was thirty years old at the time and was a flamboyant figurehead. He was able to acquire funding sources and boost the museum’s publicity rating. Thanks to his influence, the new headquarters of the Museum of Modern Art moved to 53rd Street. He also recruited his brother, David, to join the museum’s board of trustees. After Nelson was elected Governor of New York in 1958, David took over as museum president.

Architect Philip Johnson was hired by David Rockefeller to redesign the museum’s garden which was named the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden as a means to honor his mother. In 1950, after the Rockefeller Guest House on 242 East 52nd Street was finished, it became the host of several MoMA-related functions until 1964.

International Recognition

After the Museum of Modern Art displayed Pablo Picasso’s artwork from 1939 to 1940, it began to earn international recognition. The significance of its representation of Picasso’s interpretation served as a source of reinterpretation for future scholars and historians. This, again, was arranged by Barr as he was a fan of Picasso and his work. This is what turned Picasso into one of the most iconic artists of all time.

In 1941, the museum exhibited Indian Art of the United States, which was curated by Frederic Huntington Douglas and Rene d’Harnoncourt. This display was enough to change the way Native American art was viewed by the public. It also changed how they were displayed in other art museums.


On April 15, 1958, there was a fire that broke out on the second floor of the museum. It destroyed a Monet Water Lilies painting that measured eighteen feet long. Triggering the fire came from a group of workmen who were smoking while on the job, installing air conditioning. In their proximity were a canvas dropcloth, paint cans, and sawdust. All but one worker managed to survive the ordeal. They, along with the firefighters who arrived on the scene, were treated for smoke inhalation.

There were also visitors and employees that were present when the fire broke out. They, along with the artwork that was on the third and fourth floors of the museum, were evacuated. There were two visitors, however, that were injured in the process. Alfred Barr threw a chair through a window of the penthouse terrace he, the visitors, and the staff were located. He caught the women and children on the roof of a neighboring townhouse as they made their escape.

When this dramatic event was over, a three-paneled Monet Water Lilies was installed in the museum, replacing the original.


In 1969, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Workers Coalition found themselves in the heart of a controversial anti-war poster that was about to be put on display. And babies was a poster used that made reference to the My Lai Massacre. At the time, the AWC was among many protestors who opposed the Vietnam War. Originally, the museum promised to support the poster but after it was seen by the board of trustees they were offended enough to reconsider their decision. It wasn’t until the summer of 1970 that the poster was finally put on display as part of the museum’s Information exhibition.

Controversies weren’t anything new for the museum. In 1964, it received a donated Picasso painting by William S. Paley. Boy Leading a Horse, as well as Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Le Moulin de la Galette, were paintings that were allegedly owned by a German Jewish family before they were taken away from them in the 1930s. Even though both museums felt the ownership claims were not accurate, they settled with the family anyway in order to avoid a lengthy legal battle. It was also their way to ensure Picasso’s paintings remained on display for public viewing. This wasn’t the one and only occasion there have been controversies connected to the Second World War and all the events that circulated around it.

Held in front of a newly renovated Museum of Modern Art on June 14, 1984, there was a protest demonstration by four hundred female artists. Called the Women Artists Visibility Event (W.A.V.E.), the ladies felt discriminated against by the museum’s decision to display only fourteen women out of the 165 artists that were featured in its An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture exhibition.

Among the most recent criticisms against the museum is Strike MoMA. As of 2021, the group has targeted the leadership and its supporters for what they call toxic philanthropy. Forty members from the group attempted to access the museum but was blocked by authorities when they tried to force their way inside. The museum also locked the doors for the sake of public safety

Expansions and Renovations

In 1971, Richard Hunt became the first African American sculptor to have a major display at the museum. This came at a time when protests were held for MoMA to include more artwork and material from the black community.

By the time 1983 came around, the Museum of Modern Art doubled its gallery size. It also added an auditorium, two restaurants, and a bookstore. In order to accommodate, there was a fifty-six-story Museum Tower that was built as an addition.

When the museum required major renovations and yet more expansion, it acquired architect Yoshio Taniguchi from Japan, along with Kohn Pederson Fox. Starting in 1997, this project cost MoMA $858 million to complete. By the time the project was completed in 2004, the size of the museum doubled to 630,000 square feet. Prior to its completion, the museum was closed for two years. In the meantime, the artwork was temporarily put on display at MoMA’s Queens location in Long Island City. When the main museum was open to the public again, it once again met with controversy. Not everybody approved the contemporary architecture.

The museum sold land to a Texas real estate developer in 2005 under the agreement to reserve space on the lower levels of a building that was planned for further MoMA expansion. The Hines Building was designed by Jean Nouvel after construction for it was approved in 2014. It was at this same time the museum revealed its expansion plans. This came after a 2011 acquisition of an adjacent building that belonged to the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street.

The Museum of Modern Art came under fire after it was announced there was the intention to demolish the structure that was designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Despite the protests, the museum went ahead with its decision to take down the old building so they could erect a new one that was called 53W53. The new architectural development came from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, as well as Gensler. In 2017, the first phase of the $450 million expansion project was completed and ready for public viewing.

The Hines Building, along with the rest of the Museum of Modern Art, increased the public accessibility space by twenty-five percent since 2004. It also created enough space to allow an additional 200,000 artworks to be displayed. There were also additional amenities that included two fully licensed lounges. The expansion was also designed to allow a more diversified display of artwork from various communities.

From June until October 2019, MoMA closed again to commit to additional major renovations that included an expansion of 47,000 square feet of gallery space. The overall floor size of the museum was now 708,000 square feet. This latest expansion project was also undertaken by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

MoMA Today

The Museum of Modern Art has been considered to have the best collection of modern masterpieces in the world that define Western culture. With more than 150,000 individual pieces on display, MoMA also represents more than 13,000 artists. Its collection houses feature important and familiar works from a number of artists such as Rene Magritte, Barnett Newman, and Henri Rousseau, just to name a few. As a private non-profit organization, it is the seventh largest museum by budget in the United States. When the economic crisis in 2008 hit, the board of trustees opted to sell its equities in order to shift into an all-cash position.

In addition to its dedication to displaying Western artworks, the museum also houses a wide range of influential works created by American and European artists. It also has a world-renowned art photography collection that first began with Edward Steichen in 1947. His personally chosen successor in 1962 was John Szarkowski.

The museum’s library features a non-circulating collection of content that is made available to all researchers by appointment. It also has a catalog called Dadabase that features the records for all the material carried in the library. From 1929 until 1975, the museum was open to the public daily. This changed when the museum opted to close one day a week as a means to curb operating expenses. The decision was rescinded in 2012. However, the museum was forced to close again in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted New York City, the nation, and the rest of the world.

The Museum of Modern Art is one of the most expensive museums to visit in New York City. As of 2022, it charges an admission fee of $25.00 USD per adult. However, as part of the Uniqlo Free Friday Nights Program, the fees are waived after 5:30 PM. Also exempt from the fees are New York-based college students.

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