Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time at The Met can tell you that its post-1950 collection feels like an afterthought. One experiences the density and vastness of The Met’s 5,000-year catalogue only to reach their modern collection feeling as though the person designing the museum ran out of space or became too exhausted to bother with the last 70 years. Two modest floors make up these meager offerings. Above, a SparkNotes account of Abstract Expressionism and below that, an even more narrow, even more abbreviated grab-bag of anything else that might have proved notable from 1960 on.
In 2014, MoMA had announced plans for a significant expansion and The Whitney was on the verge of moving downtown to its new home and out of the Breuer Building. Following suit, The Met announced a $600 million plan to re-vamp its contemporary art wing. Then-director Thomas P. Campbell told The New York Times, “It seemed a logical moment to really step back and think about the needs of the museum in the next 30 years. It’s the Modern wing’s turn to get it right.” Three years later, amidst budget cuts and layoffs, The Met announced that it would delay its plans in favor of more immediate needs, choosing instead to renovate skylights and roofing above its famed European Paintings Gallery.
In 2015, The Met signed a lease to occupy the Breuer Building for eight years. It was seen as a place where art-enthusiasts could finally see the contemporary collection of The Met, even if only temporarily. But five years later, costing $17 million dollars to operate and in the heart of the pandemic, The Met closed shop and subleased The Breuer to The Frick Collection.
Today, hopes for a revitalized modern art wing seem to be back on track. Oscar L. Tang and his wife Agnes Hsu-Tang have given The Met $125 million dollars to revamp its modern art wing. This is the largest capital gift ever donated to the museum. Mr. Tang was born in Shanghai and co-founded Reich & Tang, an asset management firm in New York. In 1994, he became the first American of Asian descent to join The Met’s Board of Trustees. Over the years he has been a significant donor of both capital and important works of art. In The Met’s press release, regarding his gift and the importance of modern works, Mr. Tang states, “Contemporary art transcends entrenched notions of borders and identities and documents the histories of the present. As Americans of Chinese heritage, we are honored to bestow this gift to galvanize progress – for The Met, for New York, and for the country to which we belong.”
The Met’s collection is more than four times the size of The Louvre’s and provides the world with our greatest record of art and human history. While I’ve always been left unsatisfied by The Met’s lack of modern art, I’ve tried to look at that underdeveloped wing as a transition point. After covering 5,000 years, the latest 70 is just a blip. Within the current wing we glimpse at a major philosophical moment in art history (abstract expressionism and pop art) and a splatter of what’s around us today. And then we’re left unsatisfied and to cure that state of dissatisfaction, we leave. We leave The Met and go somewhere else. Art thrives in the independent galleries and pop ups and streets and tucked away bars. Today’s art isn’t found in a museum because most living artists haven’t been discovered yet. The modern wing of The Met will likely never be a beacon where we find the voices of today. It’s a verified path taking us from 3000 BC to the day before yesterday, leaving us wanting, to search for tomorrow.