Metropolitan Museum of Art bestowed with $125 million to renovate its modern art wing

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Metropolitan Museum of Art bestowed with $125 million to renovate its modern art wing

The Metropolitan Museum of Art pictured in 2019 (Lucas Ferretti/Flickr/CC BY SA-2.0)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a $125 million gift from longtime Met trustee and benefactor Oscar Tang and his wife, archeologist and art historian Agnes Hsu-Tang, that will fund a decade-in-the-works full renovation of the museum’s wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art.

News of the largest capital gift ever for the storied cultural institution in its 151-year history, comes just days after the Brooklyn Museum announced that it had received a $50 million capital gift from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. That donation, also earmarked for a major renovation project for the museum’s third- and fourth-floor galleries, ranks as the largest in the history of the Brooklyn Museum, which opened in its current home on Eastern Parkway in 1897 but technically predates the Met by nearly 50 years. Spanning over 2 million square feet at its flagship Fifth Avenue location along the eastern edge of Central Park, the Met is the largest art museum in New York City (and one of the largest in the world), followed by the roughly 560,00-square-foot Brooklyn Museum.

Designed by the late Kevin Roche, the Met’s 110,000-square-foot modern art wing (with 60,000 square feet of exhibition space) debuted in 1987 at the southwestern corner of the sprawling museum complex and was named after Reader’s Digest co-founder and museum patron Lila Acheson Wallace, who gifted the museum with $11 million for the $26 million project. With the newly announced gift, the revamped wing, which will yield 80,000 square feet of new galleries and public space per the museum, will be renamed as the Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing for a minimum of 50 years.

An architect to lead the expansive overhaul of what is now the Wallace Wing will be selected by museum leaders and trustees early next year.

“The accomplishments and generosity of Oscar and Agnes are awe-inspiring. It is an honor to build a program in a space named for them, especially one that will enable a lively celebration and reevaluation of modern and contemporary art and cultures in the context of The Met collection, said Max Hollein, the Marina Kellen French Director of The Met, in a statement. “The reimagining of these galleries will allow the Museum to approach 20th- and 21st-century art from a global, encyclopedic, bold, and surprising perspective—all values that reflect the legacy of Oscar and Agnes.”

As mentioned, a reimagining of the Met’s modern art wing is a long time coming and the $125 million gift as a lead donation finally sets the project, expected to cost $500 million, into motion.

As for the rest of the funds that need to be secured for the ambitious project, Met president and CEO Daniel H. Weiss relayed to the New York Times that “we’re not concerned.” Like many other cultural institutions, the Met has been financially battered by the pandemic, taking on a projected $150 million shortfall last year which has prompted the museum, which has a $3.3 billion endowment, to sell a number of works while instituting sweeping cost-cutting measures and bolstering fundraising.

“We know what it’s going to cost more or less to build it, to staff it,” he said. “Our finances are very stable.”

According to the Times’ reporting, Met leadership has not yet decided whether to pursue additional funding for the renovation from the city, which owns the museum building and the land that it sits on.

The Met first announced a gut renovation of its modern wing in 2014 but those David Chipperfield-led plans were shelved three years later as the museum stared down a $10 million deficit at the time. After Hollein was appointed as the museum’s new director in 2018 and the financial situation at the museum stabilized, the plans were revived. (The price tag attached to the now-scrapped $600 million Chipperfield overhaul has since grown to $800 million according to the Times.)

Not particularly easy to navigate, the Wallace Wing has been considered as “problematic,” to quote the Times, since it first opened in 1987 and even Roche himself lamented the finished product.

“It really never got built properly,” the Irish-born Pritzker laureate, then 92, told the Times in 2014. “I was never very happy with what happened.”

In addition to Roche’s revamped modern wing, the museum has formally announced or embarked on other major capital projects, including a $70 million transformation of the 1982 Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, which is also designed by Roche and home to the African art, Ancient American art, and Oceanic art galleries. That now-underway overhaul, announced in 2018 and led by wHY Architecture, is expected to be completed by 2024. Just earlier this month, the museum announced that it would transform its Nolan Library into a “multi-purpose, active learning center” in a $7 million project led by Koko Architecture + Design. Notably, the Met has also since prematurely vacated the Met Breuer, a rather short-lived branch location focused on modern and contemporary housed within the old Whitney Museum of American Art. The landmark Madison Avenue building designed by Marcel Breuer is now temporarily occupied by the Frick Collection while that museum’s historic home on East 70th Street undergoes renovations.

“Having witnessed the turbulent times that many continue to endure, we find The Metropolitan Museum of Art to be an exemplary guardian and presenter of artistic heritages across cultures and time,” said the Tangs in a joint statement. “Contemporary art transcends entrenched notions of borders and identities and documents 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.”

In 1994, the Shanghai-born Oscar Tang, 82, became the first American of Asian descent to join the Met’s Board of Trustees, and his past acts of largesse have impacted the museum profoundly, particularly within its Asian art department. Outside of the Met, the philanthropy of Tang, who co-founded New York-based asset management firm Reich & Tang in 1970, has extended to numerous other organizations including the New York Philharmonic, where he is co-chairman, and Phillips Academy Andover, where he attended school beginning at the age of 11 after his family fled China to Hong Kong in 1948. Tang went on to attend Yale University and Harvard Business School.

As detailed by the Met, the Tangs together have bestowed major gifts to establish academic centers for Asian humanities at Princeton University, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Oxford, and also actively support a range of social justice and humanitarian causes including the Yellow Whistle Campaign, which they founded in early 2021 in reaction to an upsurge of anti-Asian violence across the United States.

A senior research scholar at Columbia University and a Distinguished Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Hsu-Tang, 50, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is a former Mellon Fellow at Cambridge and Stanford. Actively involved in cultural heritage protection efforts, she has advised UNSECO in Paris and was a member of President Barack Obama’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. Currently, she is board chair-elect of the New-York Historical Society and formerly served as managing director on the Met Opera board from 2014 to July 2021.

The Tangs are described by the Met as “activist collectors” who “endeavor to safeguard art as cultural heritage” and together have “generously provided gifts and promised gifts of art and supported acquisitions, special exhibitions, general operating needs, and galleries.” Tang serves as longtime Chair of The Met’s Asian Art Visiting Committee while Hsu-Tang is a member of the Modern and Contemporary Visiting Committee.

AN will report back next year when an architect for the Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing has been selected.