New space for Museum of African Art intrigues with the promise of revelations

April 04, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

AFRICAN ART

What: Museum for African Art.

Where: 593 Broadway, New York.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Current show runs through Aug. 15.

Admission: $3 adults, $1.50 seniors, students and children.

Call: (212) 966-1313.

Enter the Museum for African Art's new headquarters on New York's lower Broadway, and the bright yellow walls of the reception area draw you to them like a magnet. On the way, however, you get a glimpse of the dark, brown-gray tones of the galleries beyond, and they in turn beckon with their promise of mysteries and revelations.

This inviting and flexible space in SoHo, to which the museum recently moved from the Upper East Side, is having the desired effect. "We had 1,500 people the first Saturday we were open down here," says Susan Vogel, the museum's executive director. "Uptown, we drew about 15,000 a year."

It was the highly respected Vogel who opened the museum, then called the Center for African Art, in 1984, in two town houses on East 68th Street. Vogel's is one of only two museums in the country concentrating on sub-Saharan African art, along with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington.

Once a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, Vogel guided her fledgling operation through 16 shows in its eight years uptown. The shows, and the museum, won critical acclaim for their combination of intellectualism and accessibility.

Recently Vogel saw the need to move for a number of reasons. Chief among them was audience -- not only its size, but its makeup.

"That was a great place to start -- it showed that what we were doing was serious. But one of the principal reasons we moved was to get a younger, more mixed, more heterogeneous crowd."

Vogel found the space she was looking for in SoHo, lower Manhattan's popular area of galleries, shops, art publications and, now, museums. Nearby are the Guggenheim's downtown location, opened last year, and the New Museum for Contemporary Art.

The Museum for African Art's new space, designed by Maya Lin of Vietnam War Memorial fame, occupies the first and basement floors of a 19th-century commercial building at 593 Broadway. These floors are devoted primarily to two exhibition spaces, plus a small museum shop inside the front door; the offices and an education/programs room spill over into the building next door.

Among the new site's advantages over the old, aside from audience, are size -- 17,000 square feet instead of 6,000 -- and consequent ability to broaden activities. The main exhibition space occupies most of the two main floors, but there's a smaller gallery where more modest exhibits can be mounted between big shows. "We will never have to close completely [between shows] as we had to do before," Vogel says.

In a designer's statement, Lin says that she tried to create "a place that is dark, safe, welcoming and protective. . . . I am particularly interested in the journey, and how people will experience moving through the space."

She has designed the space so the visitor is pulled through the two-floor principal gallery area by contrasts in light, color and surroundings. The first floor's dark-walled galleries end at the back of the building in a straight, tunnel-like staircase with a curved dark blue wall leading down to the rest of the main galleries below. There, one proceeds forward through equally deep-toned spaces, where lighting heightens the drama of objects, ending in a wide, circular, bright yellow staircase going back upstairs. It makes you feel as if you're emerging from a subterranean cave into the sunlight.

To stay within the $1 million project budget, funded mainly with private contributions, Lin tried some creative recycling. For instance, notes Vogel, "We took the beams that we cut out of the floor to make the stairwells and made benches for the public areas out of them."

While a tour of the museum offers visitors a varied visual experience, the spaces for art themselves are not complex. "The town houses," says Vogel, "were beautiful, but not neutral. You always knew you were in a 19th-century building. Here, we wanted to create a blank slate with a neutral and flexible gallery space."

Filling that space now is the inaugural downtown show, "Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals," which will make a national tour after its New York run, and will come to the Walters Art Gallery in May 1994.

The show's roughly 100 objects are drawn from 30 African cultures and include everything from masks and textiles to a dance enclosure and the facade of a chief's house. "Secrecy" explores the ways in which African art both conceals and reveals, for, as curator Mary Nooter points out, these objects demonstrate the paradox that there must be knowledge that a secret exists in order for the secret to have power.

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