“Museum in the Sky”: A Spatial History of the New Museum

By Megan Heuer

June 2012

When Marcia Tucker decided to found a museum devoted to contemporary art in the late 1970s, she conceived of the New Museum as a reinvention of traditional museological practices. Instead of a collection of objects displayed within a specific space, Tucker envisioned a more flexible model not contingent on a specific architectural site. At a time when nonprofit galleries and artist-run spaces were proliferating, Tucker set out to build an institution that could bring new forms of artistic practice nurtured by the alternative space movement to a broader audience, and to provide artists working with non-traditional materials and genres more financial and intellectual support.

Today the Museum is located in a dedicated, freestanding building at 235 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with an iconic design by the architectural firm SANAA. When this building opened to the public on December 1, 2007, it was the first time in the New Museum's thirty-year history that the institution possessed its own real estate and physical program. Tucker's ambition to establish a museum without either a permanent home or a permanent collection as an initial foundation required not only a radical reconception of the definition of a museum, but also a flexible physical structure. The architectural and geographic history of the New Museum reveals the ongoing evolution of the Museum not as a stable container for objects, but as an armature with permeable boundaries.


New Museum building, 235 Bowery, 2009. Exterior view

"The Museum in the sky"1 was how Marcia Tucker described her vision for a new institution dedicated to contemporary art. The image reflects both the utopian aspects of Tucker's goals as well as the practical difficulties encountered in New York City when establishing a new, permanent physical space for displaying art. The Museum's first home consisted of two small rooms at 105 Hudson Street in Tribeca.2 Known as the Fine Arts Building, the un-renovated space also housed the artist-run projects Artists Space (founded 1972) and Printed Matter (founded 1976), the Julian Pretto Gallery, and artists studios. The founding date of the New Museum on January 1, 1977, refers to the establishment of this office space where Tucker and a small volunteer staff of four began to work.3 An article in the local downtown paper The Villager reported that "while still searching for a permanent exhibition space" and, of course, money for operations—Tucker and her staff began visiting artists in their studios, setting up resource files of information about contemporary artists and their work, and organizing exhibitions."4 Without a dedicated gallery space, the first New Museum exhibition "Memory" was held at the nonprofit gallery C-Space at 81 Leonard Street in May 1977.


"Memory: at C Space," 1977. Installation view

When the Fine Arts Building was sold in July 1977, all of its tenants were subsequently evicted. The New Museum relocated to the ground floor of the List Center of the New School for Social Research at 65 Fifth Avenue at 14th Street. Through an arrangement with Museum trustee Vera List, the Museum was given 2,500 square feet of gallery space with adjoining offices, plus a small operating budget and "an assurance of autonomy."5 The "lease," however, was temporary: the new space was intended to enable the Museum to build its profile while conducting a search for a permanent location.

"Early Works by Five Contemporary Artists" was the first exhibition to open at the New Museum's new home on November 11, 1977, and by the end of 1979, the Museum had organized fifteen exhibitions, eight performances, eight symposia, and dozens of lectures at 65 Fifth Avenue. With this programming record, the Museum began actively seeking the donation of a larger space that could house the Museum "until we are in a financial position to establish our own quarters."6 The greater financial burden of a permanent space figured importantly in Tucker's decision to establish her institution as a museum, rather than an alternative space, because she believed more funding opportunities existed to sustain such a venture.


"Early Works by Five Contemporary Artists: Ron Gorchov, Elizabeth Murray, Dennis Oppenheim, Dorothea Rockburne, Joel Shapiro",ca. 1977. Installation view

By 1980, downtown Manhattan was home to hundreds of alternative spaces and galleries, and many more had already come and gone.7 The New Museum defined itself specifically as an outgrowth of this so-called alternative space movement, importantly distinguishing the position of a museum within this milieu. The Museum's mission was not only to bring a more serious art historical approach to research, but also a more institutional approach to fundraising and programming. In a series of shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New Museum addressed the alternative space movement in New York. These exhibitions addressed the formal and stylistic character of the art that alternative spaces nurtured and exhibited—often performative or unclassifiable according to museological conventions—as well as the cultural politics they embodied.

In 1981, the exhibition "Alternatives in Retrospect: An Historical Overview 1969-1975" surveyed this scene as an historical phenomenon that had recently come to an end. Organized by Jacki Apple, an independent curator who had begun the project while a curator at Franklin Furnace Archives, "Alternatives in Retrospect," in one sense, seems like a memorial project. The exhibition's venue, the fledging New Museum, was even seen by some as a sign that the first generation of alternative spaces had been fully assimilated into institutionalized practices.8 Tucker noted in her preface to the exhibition catalogue that the New Museum "represents one outgrowth of the pioneering spirit [of alternative spaces] which 'Alternatives in Retrospect' allows us to review."9


"Alternatives in Retrospect," 1981. Installation view

In contrast to "Alternatives in Retrospect," another early New Museum exhibition program developed a different approach to the radical work of a new generation of alternative spaces. The "Events" series which began in 1981 invited several new artists' collectives to stage exhibitions at the New Museum with complete curatorial control given over to the invited artists. The "Events" series opened up the Museum to outside groups—the space of the Museum would be given over to those with their own program and ideological commitment. The aim, according to Tucker, was to use the Museum's visibility to bring the work of these groups to a wider audience, which highlighted the Museum's position within the art world establishment in another way. The proposition at the heart of the "Events" series pointed to the role of geography in developing new audiences. The first group to organize an "Events" exhibition was Fashion Moda, an alternative space founded by Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis in 1978 in the South Bronx, a location without a concentration of art galleries that was believed to be rarely visited by Manhattan museum-goers.


"Events: Fashion Moda," ca. 1981

The crucial place of geography and real estate in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York might be best exemplified by a show organized by Collaborative Projects (Colab) in January 1980. The "Real Estate Show" took place in an abandoned building on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, "liberated" from its owner, the City of New York. An exhibition about property and housing, including the practice of "warehousing space," it was open for only twenty-four hours before the city's Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development repossessed the building. The "Real Estate Show" was itself a work of art, a radical gesture that aimed to bring attention to municipal neglect and the potential for cultural activity to reclaim decaying urban infrastructure.10 Colab was originally scheduled to participate in the "Events" series in 1981. However, the group canceled their show at the last minute, claiming that the Museum "stood to gain more than Colab" from the exhibition.11 This history was included in the exhibition catalogue for the first series of "Events," recording the fraught politics of space—both the literal space of the exhibition, but also its geographic and social location—for artists working in New York in the early 1980s.

Finally, in July 1983, the Museum found a permanent ground-floor space in the landmark Astor Building at 583 Broadway in SoHo. The one-year agreement between the New Museum and the New School had stretched to nearly six years as the Museum struggled to find a space that would be affordable to maintain and located in close proximity to other art and cultural groups, which was seen as important in the development of an engaged public audience. The real estate in the Astor Building was donated to the New Museum as the result of "a unique partnership between the Museum, the developer HQZ Fine Arts, and a private limited partnership." For the first time, the Museum had "its own home."13 A nineteenth-century edifice on Broadway just south of Houston Street, the Astor Building housed the Museum in offices, a larger exhibition space, and a lobby with an admissions desk. Storage space in the basement also accommodated a library established by the donation of books from the SoHo Center for the Visual Arts Library by Larry Aldrich. With 4,000 square feet of gallery space, the new site enabled an expanded program of exhibitions, educational events, and public programs when opened to the public on October 8, 1983.


Exterior view of the New Museum building at 583 Broadway ca. 1985.

A signature element of the New Museum at 583 Broadway was the artist projects presented in its large, street-level windows on Broadway and Mercer Street. A program of window installations was first established at 65 Fifth Avenue, where artists were invited to present work in the shallow, vitrine-like spaces. These displays included the first museum presentation by Jeff Koons (1980) and an installation by David Hammons (1981). In SoHo, the architecture allowed a more fluid exchange between exhibitions in the galleries and the exterior windows, which in turn led to the presentation of more ambitious artworks with more visibility both inside and outside the walls of the Museum. One of the earliest and longest-running installations that took place in the Mercer Street window was "Seven Years of Living Art" by Linda Montano, which comprised monthly appearances by Montano in the window over a seven-year period from 1984 until 1991.


Top: Jeff Koons, "The New," 1980. Window installation view. Bottom: Linda Montano, "Seven Years of Living Art," 1986

The New Museum's growing presence in New York, as well as nationally, can be marked by the appointment of curators Lynn Gumpert, Ned Rifkin, and Marcia Tucker as commissioners of the US Pavilion for the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984. Although the Museum had organized the exhibition "Four Artists: Drawings" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in 1977, the Venice Biennale commission acknowledged the New Museum as an important voice in the international art world. The exhibition presented in Venice, entitled "Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained: American Visions of the New Decade," was organized around the role of utopian thinking in American painting in the 1980s as a response to global insecurity. "The notion of Earthly Paradise, of the Golden Age, of a Utopian existence, is important to an understanding of much contemporary painting in America today because it symbolizes a national longing for peace and security at a time when artists are seeking to reinvest the world with meaning,"14 wrote the curators. The exhibition dramatized a tension between ideals and political and social realities that could be said to parallel the contradictions that animated the New Museum itself.

The paradise of the public-private partnership that helped to populate SoHo as well as Tribeca and the financial district with arts organizations in the 1980s was, however, not permanent. Ten years after the New Museum moved to 583 Broadway, the Astor Building was sold to a developer who converted the floors above the Museum into luxury condominiums. By the mid-1990s, SoHo had entered a new phase of gentrification. While the 1960s and '70s had seen the neighborhood's abandoned lofts reclaimed by artists and transformed into affordable live-work spaces, and the '80s had ushered in galleries, by the '90s, SoHo was redefined as a luxury shopping and residential neighborhood.

In the 1994 sale of the Astor building, the Museum acquired additional space on the second floor in addition to the basement level. The building was also renamed the New Museum Building. A renovation in 1997 added 7,000 square feet of gallery space and offices on the second floor and a bookstore and media lounge on the lower level, with additional storage and space for a library below. However, while the Museum's programming in all areas continued to grow, the architectural and economic realities of SoHo prevented further expansion at the same site. In 1999, the Museum, under its newly appointed second director Lisa Phillips, began to develop a plan to construct the Museum's first dedicated, freestanding building.


Renovation at 583 Broadway, 1997. New Museum store is established

The New Museum once again became nomadic in 2004 when the Broadway space was sold in order to fund the purchase of a site for and the construction of a new building. Offices were moved to a temporary space in Chelsea and gallery space was rented from the Chelsea Art Museum on West 23rd Street. The first exhibition during this temporary residency was "East Village USA," an historical survey of the art and scene generated in this venerable downtown neighborhood during the 1980s. Where the 1981 show "Alternatives in Retrospect," emphasized specific artist-run galleries that focused on showing performance and otherwise unsalable works, "East Village USA" focused on the diverse milieu of a particular geographic location and the development of aesthetic practices within the incubator of commercial galleries, nonprofit spaces, as well as nightclubs and city streets.

The power of an ecosystem approach to the institution might also be said to be behind the institutional partnership between the New Museum and Rhizome established in 2003. Almost thirty years after the Museum organized its first exhibitions in spaces lent by larger institutions, the Museum itself became a host to Rhizome, a nonprofit dedicated to art engaged with new media technology. Rhizome was founded as an email list in 1996; in its infancy, it was a virtual meeting ground for an intimate avant-garde of artists, the first to experiment with art online. This affiliation with the New Museum provides office space and administrative support for Rhizome, which operates its own program and retains its identity as a separate organizational entity. In providing Rhizome with material and organizational support, the Museum forged an alliance between two institutions with a shared commitment to emerging artists and art forms, notably including works of art that occupy virtual rather than real space.

When the New Museum finally opened its first dedicated building on December 1, 2007, at 235 Bowery, the Museum had an architecture designed to accommodate its unique hybrid program of exhibitions, education, and events. The SANAA building has become both a symbol and a real space of the Museum's activity; however, the New Museum continues to operate beyond this singular site.

Initiated in 2006, the collaborative project Museum as Hub links together a network of international art spaces dedicated to presenting art that challenges the framework of the "exhibition" as a single set of objects on view in a single location. With partners in Seoul, South Korea, Mexico City, Mexico, Cairo, Egypt, and Eindhoven, the Netherlands, the Hub supports emerging artists working in different places with different communities, through an infrastructure independent of architecture. "Both as a physical site and an expanding network of international art spaces, initiatives, and artists, the Museum as Hub investigates the potential of experimentation and exchange through residences, exhibitions, and public programs," write Eungie Joo and Ethan Swan in their Introduction to Art Spaces Directory, an international compendium of independent art spaces from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, published in 2012 as a direct result of the Museum as Hub initiative.15

In the fall of 2011, the Museum opened Studio 231, a street-level gallery in the building adjacent to the Museum (at 231 Bowery) that now serves as a platform for international emerging artists to realize projects in the un-renovated, ground-floor space. The projects at Studio 231 seek to foster a new relationship between the artists and the public by allowing artists to create work outside the confines of the main Museum building and in closer proximity to the energy of the street and to the creative space of the artist's studio. Over thirty years after the New Museum was founded, its site and program, while not mutually exclusive, continue to be reconfigured and re-imagined.

Megan Heuer is an art historian and Scholar in Residence at the New Museum.


1 Manuscript of an essay by William D. Dunn for The Villager, ca. 1978, Marcia Tucker Papers, The Getty Research Institute, box 95, folder 5. See also Marcia Tucker, A Short Life of Trouble, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 121.
2 Originally built in 1892 by Carrère & Hastings, who went on to become the architects of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, 105 Hudson Street was converted to a co-op beginning in the 1970s; the ground floor "retail space" now houses the restaurant Nobu. A brief history of the building can be found in Christopher Gray, "Streetscapes/105 Hudson Street; A TriBeCa Taste of the Young Carrère & Hastings," The New York Times, June 25, 2000.
3 Tucker, 2008, 123. Tucker later described the initial challenge of working at 105 Hudson Street as "using plastic spoons to build a castle."
4 William D. Dunn, "A Museum in the Village: An Idea Whose Time Has Come," The Villager, October 20, 1977, n.p.
5 Tucker, 2008, 128.
6 The New Museum News, Winter 1979/Spring 1980. New Museum Archives, New York.
7 Julie Ault provides a detailed chronology and account of the development of alternative art spaces in New York from 1965 to 1985, including the New Museum, in Alternative Art New York, ed. Julie Ault (New York: The Drawing Center, 2002).
8 David E. Little, "Colab Takes a Piece, History Takes It Back: Collectivity and New York Alternative Spaces," Art Journal, vol. 66, no. 1 (Spring 2007), 63.
9 Marcia Tucker, "Preface," in Alternatives in Retrospect: An Historical Overview 1969-1975, ed. Jacki Apple (New York: The New Museum, 1981), 3.
10 As a result of newspaper coverage of the exhibition that was sympathetic to the organizers of the show, the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development offered the group an alternate site at 156 Rivington Street, which became ABC No Rio. Ault, 2002, 59.
11 Grace Glueck, "The New Collectives—Reaching for a Wider Audience," New York Times, February 1, 1981, Section 2, 27.
12 The New Museum: Report 1981-1984, 1984, n.p. New Museum Archives, New York.
13 The New Museum Newsletter, Fall 1983/Winter 1984. New Museum Archives, New York, 3. See also Jill Silverman, "Arts, Business & Public Sites: A Growing Partnership," Downtown, (New York: Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, April 1983).
14 Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained: American Visions of the New Decade. (New York: The New Museum, 1984).
15 Eungie Joo and Ethan Swan, "Introduction," in Art Spaces Directory, ed. Eungie Joo and Ethan Swan (New York: New Museum/ArtAsiaPacific, 2012), 7.